Board to settle juvenile center funding dispute

Friday, December 7, 2001

JACKSON, Mo. -- A state board has been asked to settle a fierce budget battle between the Cape Girardeau County Commission and local circuit judges, and the outcome will decide the future of a proposed juvenile center in Cape Girardeau.

At issue is whether the circuit court can order the county commission to build a juvenile center and mandate the size and design of the structure.

"The judges contend they can. We contend that is our job, not theirs," Gerald Jones, presiding commissioner, said Thursday.

Jones said also at dispute is how much money the county commission must budget for juvenile department operations. That impacts how much would be available to finance construction of a detention center, he said.

The county commission, joined by the Bollinger and Perry county commissions, filed a petition with the Missouri Judicial Finance Commission this week seeking a ruling on both points. The seven-member commission appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court includes three county commissioners from around the state, three circuit judges and an appeals court judge.

State law question

Jones said the county commission had no choice but to file the petition.

Under state law, the circuit court can dictate its own budget, which includes juvenile office operations. But the county commission approves the overall county budget.

Most budget disputes are worked out without litigation. When that doesn't happen, the only recourse is to appeal to the finance commission, Jones said.

Judges and juvenile department officials in the 32nd Judicial Circuit and the Cape Girardeau County Commission have been at odds for months over plans for the new detention center.

John Grimm, presiding circuit judge for the three-county circuit, refused to discuss the dispute publicly. Missouri Supreme Court rules prohibit judges from commenting on pending litigation, he said.

The county commission last year bought nine acres at the end of Progress Street in an industrial area west of South Kingshighway as a site for a new juvenile center. In January, architect Tom Holshouser was drawing up final plans for a 40,000-square-foot facility complete with offices and a juvenile courtroom.

But in September, the commission put the project on hold, saying it wasn't ready to spend millions of dollars on a center when at least half the cells at the existing detention center sat empty earlier this year. The center on Merriwether Street downtown can hold eight juveniles but typically has housed only three to four a day, commissioners said in September. Commissioners said the county doesn't need a 32-bed detention center and can't afford to spend $4.3 million to build it.

But Randy Rhodes, the circuit's chief juvenile officer, said the county could eliminate the juvenile courtroom and make other changes to bring the project down to around $3 million.

Rhodes said he wants a functional center, not a palace, and the county needs a 32-bed center to meet a state-funding formula that would allow any additional staff to be on the state payroll.

Juvenile officers are paid by the state. But the county has to foot the bill for additional staff for new detention centers that aren't large enough to meet the state's funding requirements, Rhodes said.

"I can run a 24-bed facility, but the county will have to provide staffing dollars to run it," he said.

County governments also pay utilities and operating costs for the local juvenile offices and detention centers.

The existing center has proved troublesome. In August, two judges and chief juvenile officer in the circuit closed the 30-year-old juvenile detention center after a fire in a cell raised safety concerns. The closing angered county commissioners.

The county commission subsequently decided to improve the detention center, installing electronic locks on cell doors and new fire-resistant beds.

The improvements cost $35,000, and the work is nearing completion. Commissioners said they hope the detention center will reopen within a week, but the final decision rests with the judges.

In the meantime, the county is paying $60 a day to house on average seven juveniles a day at detention centers in other counties, including Charleston, Mo.

Rhodes said the current center isn't adequate for the long term even with improvements. The circuit needs more detention cells, he said. Juveniles who have committed serious crimes, including accused drug dealers, often are released to home detention or the electronic shackles program while their cases are pending.

The decision on whether Cape Girardeau builds a new center lies with the judicial finance commission.

Jones is a member of the commission, but he will be replaced by a commissioner from another county in this case.

The circuit court has 30 days to respond to the petition. The state commission, which handles about three cases a year, tries to informally resolve disputes. If that doesn't work, it will render a decision.

"We try to expedite them as quickly as possible," said Marvin Teer, the state commission's attorney.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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