Construction of the Kenai Peninsula's own youth detention facility could begin as early as next year -- but only if the Alaska Legislature provides the $4.5 million needed to build it.
Nearly two years ago, Gov. Tony Knowles refused to add the project to his proposed capital budget, though members of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Detention Facility Committee were not deterred.
At the Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, committee members urged the chamber faithful to lobby for construction funds to be approved this legislative session.
"We believe the time has come for a Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility," said juvenile probation officer Eric Weatherby, who sits on the committee. "We need your support to get funding in the Legislature this year."
Two years ago, as the price of oil slipped to less than $9 a barrel, funding was not likely. Today, oil is in the $30 neighborhood, so organizers are more optimistic that it will be funded.
The facility is essentially a jail for kids, Weatherby said. It is designed to hold juvenile offenders for a short time after arrest and up to 30 days after arraignment.
Currently, youthful offenders are housed in often inadequate jail cells at local police stations or shipped to McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.
Kenai Police Lt. Jeff Kohler showed slides of the tiny, two-bed cell used for housing children at the Kenai police station.
"With this single cell, it's impossible to hold boys and girls together," he said. "And if someone is under the influence or dangerous, we can't have anyone else in the cell with them."
He said the police have put mattresses on the floor of the employee kitchen for kids to sleep on when the cell is full.
Kohler said there are other good reasons to have a local facility, such as reducing the amount of time police officers spend dealing with youthful offenders, so they can spend more time on patrol.
"A juvenile arrest can take up to five hours," he said.
Besides booking, photographing and fingerprinting the offenders, Kohler said, tracking down the adult responsible for them takes the most time. With a youth detention facility, those duties will be handled by others.
"Police can return to the street rather than be baby sitters," he said.
Kohler also spoke of keeping juvenile offenders near family and local schools.
Currently, an average of 10 peninsula youths are housed at McLaughlin at any one time, Weatherby said.
"Our education dollars go to Anchorage for each one of those," he said.
The site chosen for the facility is near downtown Kenai on Marathon Road, across from the fire training center. The 10-acre site, worth an estimated $200,000, will be donated by the city of Kenai. The property is part of the airport trust land transferred to the city by the Federal Aviation Administration when Kenai incorporated, so the city must "buy" the land from the Airport Fund through a transfer from the general fund.
Kenai Mayor John Williams said the donation of the land would be the latest in a long line of donations to bring economic development to the city. Past projects include the Visitors and Cultural Center, senior housing, the District Court building, fire training center and, most recently, land for the Public Health Center now going up on Barnacle Way.
Chair of the committee, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Pete Sprague of Soldotna, who favored a site in Soldotna over the Kenai site, told the chamber audience he now thought the Kenai site was an excellent choice.
It was chosen because of its proximity to the court house and to the airport over objections that Kenai was not the hub of the peninsula that Soldotna is. Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said earlier this year that Kenai is "12 miles out of the way."
Sprague and Torgerson led a push to have the two sites re-evaluated. When that was done, Soldotna received more points, but still not enough to surpass Kenai as the logical choice.
Questions arose about the proposed size of the facility -- 10 beds -- since the average youth incarceration rate of peninsula kids at McLaughlin is 10.
Weatherby said a 15-bed facility might not be palatable to the Legislature, while Sprague pointed out the original proposal from the state was for four beds. The building and the site are both suitable for future expansion, Weatherby added.
Once a facility is built, its operation could cost up to $1.5 million a year. Weatherby said those funds would come from the state as well.
There will be several more presentations in communities around the peninsula before the legislative session, Weatherby said. He also said there would be a meeting on Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. in the Borough Building to further discuss the project.
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