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County, judges make progress on disputed juvenile center

Saturday, December 22, 2001

The Cape Girardeau County Commission has agreed to build a juvenile center if the price is right.

Commissioners Gerald Jones and Joe Gambill and County Auditor H. Weldon Macke, along with the presiding commissioners of Bollinger and Perry counties, agreed to move forward with the project during a meeting with three of the 32nd Judicial Circuit's judges in St. Louis on Friday.

Jones, presiding county commissioner, said the county probably could afford to build a juvenile center to serve the three-county circuit as long as bond payments are no more than $150,000 a year.

John Grimm, presiding circuit judge, and judges William Syler and Peter Statler attended the meeting at a state office building. Two members of Missouri's Judicial Finance Commission -- appeals court Judge Robert Dowd Jr., who chairs the commission, and Boone County Presiding Commissioner Don Stamper -- mediated the session in an attempt to resolve a budget dispute over the new juvenile center.

The county commission recently petitioned the seven-member state board to settle the dispute, which centers on whether the circuit court can order the county to build a juvenile center and mandate its size and design. Also in dispute is how much money the county commission must budget for juvenile department operations.

The state pays the salaries of juvenile officers, but the three counties in the circuit must pay other operating expenses. Cape Girardeau County pays the bulk of those expenses.

Funding unclear

The circuit's judges said at Friday's meeting they would explore the financial options for a new center, but it's unclear if the funding will be enough to proceed.

If not, the dispute will be settled by the entire Missouri Judicial Finance Commission, said Jones, who serves on the state board but was replaced by Stamper for this case.

Grimm said the judges hope to report back to the county commission within the next two to four weeks.

While there was no solid agreement, Grimm felt the meeting went well.

"We made a lot of progress toward resolving the issues," he said.

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.

Jones said the county commission always has been willing to build an affordable juvenile center, perhaps a 20-bed facility.

Plans scrapped

The Cape Girardeau 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 center sat empty earlier this year.

The center on Merriwether Street can hold 10 juveniles, but typically has only three to four a day, commissioners said.

Commissioners said the county doesn't need a 32-bed detention center and can't afford to spend $4.3 million to build it.

The 30-year-old detention center housed an average of three juveniles a day in January, February and March; four a day in April and May; two a day in June and July and one a day during the first part of August, according to the juvenile office.

Grimm and Statler, along with chief juvenile officer Randy Rhodes, closed the center last summer citing safety concerns after a 16-year-old girl started a fire in her cell on Aug. 14. Juveniles were held in detention centers in other counties through November.

The detention center reopened this month after the county made $35,000 in improvements, including installing electronic locks on cell doors.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123


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