Youth detention center funds in state budget

Posted: Friday, May 04, 2001

A long-awaited juvenile detention center for the Kenai Peninsula got a $4.6 million shot in the arm recently.

Funding for the design and construction of the project has found its way into the state's fiscal year 2002 capital budget.

"This has been part of a five-year master plan," said Kim Smith, district supervisor for the Alaska Division of Juvenile Justice. "It goes way back because there are no youth correction facilities on the Kenai Peninsula at all. All the peninsula offenders have been transported and detained at McLaughlin Youth Center (in Anchorage)."

Smith said a central booking area for juveniles would facilitate a rapid response to delinquent activity, and detention accommodations for juveniles being held for emergency and pretrial hearings will result in keeping youth close to families and the court as well as providing interview space for Kenai juvenile probation officers.

"It will also provide on-site district education," Smith said. "When we have to send Kenai Peninsula residents to McLaugh-lin, it disrupts their entire educational process. They come out of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and have to go into McLaughlin, which puts them into the Anchorage School District. We lose dollars. But more importantly, we lose their track of education. Now they can continue to be educated where they are at now."

Keeping youths on the peninsula will also facilitate interagency work "so we can focus on rehabilitation and reintegration within the community itself," Smith said. "By taking them to McLaughlin, we whisk them away from families and the community. This way, we think we can have a real effective intervention policy and be more consistent."

Youthful offenders requiring long-term treatment will continue to be transported to McLaughlin Youth Center.

Smith said the success of this project is due to team effort.

"There's been a real committed group of citizens that have worked hard behind the scenes to get this thing put together," she said. "They have been diligent in their voluntary efforts because they know how important it is for the peninsula. They've been there every step of the way."

Thanks to the city of Kenai, the facility will be located on a 10-acre tract of land on Kenai's Marathon Road. According to Kenai Mayor John Williams, the city paid approximately $180,000 for land purchased from the airport trust.

"It's actually taxpayers dollars that are buying the land," said Williams, who also expressed appreciation for the work required to bring the project to reality.

"It was a tremendous, concentrated effort," he said. "The city of Kenai is very pleased that the Legislature went ahead and chose to fund it. I especially want to thank all the committee members that worked so hard on this. It shows when you get a bunch of citizens working on a project that they believe in, it can come to fruition."

Williams said actual authorization for funding won't come into being until the state's fiscal year begins July 1, but that still leaves time to break ground this summer.

"It's conceivable the footings can get in the ground before winter," he said.

Kenai City Manager Rick Ross credited Lt. Jeff Kohler of the Kenai Police Department for his support of the project. Kohler was unavailable for comment.

Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, said the existence of a local facility is a crucial piece of the puzzle involving successfully rehabilitation and reintegration of youth back into communities.

"I am pleased that this project, which is so important to Kenai Peninsula residents, is going to become a reality," Ward said.

The facility suffered some precarious moments in the Legislature last week. According to Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, it was included in the first draft of the budget.

However, it dropped out of sight. An amendment brought it back into the budget.

Pete Sprague, who represents Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, has been involved in the project since December 1997.

"I attended the first meeting when the state raised the issue of perhaps building a facility on the peninsula," said Sprague, who was on the Soldotna City Council at the time. He served as chairman of a committee of concerned citizens, agency representatives and state officials whose goal was to bring the project to the peninsula.

Eleven separate criteria were used to evaluate possible sites for the facility.

"After the evaluations came back, the Kenai site scored slightly higher than the Soldotna site," Sprague said.

Sprague and Torgerson asked for a review of the evaluation process. On second pass, Kenai again came come out on top.

"I was satisfied that the Kenai site was the better site, and since January 2000, (the committee) has worked toward that goal," Sprague said. "I am very pleased and excited at this point that it is in the Senate capital budget. I'm very hopeful that this will be the year we go forward with construction of the facility."

Assembly President Tim Navarre, who represents Kenai, said the funding is good news for the central peninsula.

"The facilities had already been approved by the Legislature," said Navarre of the proposed Kenai center and several others across the state. "But they just hadn't been funded in the past. This is the funding needed to proceed."

Smith, whose supervisory boundaries with the state's Division of Juvenile Justice include the entire Kenai Peninsula, extending to the west side of Cook Inlet and south of Kachemak Bay, was pleased by the funding.

"We're just really excited and very, very grateful that the legislators have seen fit to get it through for us."

On behalf of probation staff, the juvenile offenders and their families, Smith said, "It's going to be really good for everybody involved."

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