Commissioners endorse local option after extended study

File photo by Marcy Stamper The outdoor recreation area at the county’s juvenile facility needs minor repairs. County staff may consider an enclosed area as they look at upgrades to the entire facility.

File photo by Marcy Stamper
The outdoor recreation area at the county’s juvenile facility needs minor repairs. County staff may consider an enclosed area as they look at upgrades to the entire facility.

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County will continue to use the local facility in Okanogan to house its juvenile offenders, where they will receive schooling, drug and alcohol counseling, and behavior-management interventions from county staff and community volunteers.

The Okanogan County commissioners announced the decision at a public meeting on June 21 after a long fact-finding process that included presentations by the county’s juvenile facilities staff and judges, by representatives from facilities in other counties, and cost comparisons.

In addition to their regular meetings, the commissioners have held eight evening public meetings since March with in-depth presentations.

“The decision was a combination of everything we learned over time,” said County Commissioner Ray Campbell this week.

Campbell and the other commissioners found the presentation by the county’s juvenile staff on June 14 particularly persuasive. “We finally felt that this is what’s best for our children and the county — this is where we need to keep our facility,” said Campbell. “It was a very moving presentation. It was an eye-opener.”

The issue — particularly the prospect that the county’s youth might be sent to a facility three-and-a-half hours away — generated considerable interest and concern from the public, from current and retired county judges, and from professionals who work with youths. The three dozen letters sent to the commissioners about the issue were uniformly opposed to sending young offenders out of the county.

Because the county’s juvenile facility is aging — it was built in 1974 — this board of county commissioners has studied the issue before, as have their predecessors.

It’s been on these commissioners’ minds since he took office in 2013, said Campbell. Campbell said a proposal for a $19.5-million justice complex that had been prepared for the Washington Legislature four years ago weighed on them because it included a list of defects in the current facility.

All three commissioners “wholeheartedly and unanimously” supported the justice complex, they said in a 2013 letter to the Legislature seeking funding for the project. So when the county failed to get money to build the new facility, the list of structural needs and repairs loomed as liabilities, said Campbell.

“We were concerned that something could happen that could be harmful or dangerous,” he said. “It was our responsibility to look at other options.”

The issue fell by the wayside as the commissioners coped with two years of serious wildfires, but the board decided last year that it was important to take a serious look at juvenile-detention options, said Campbell.

Those options included whether to entertain an offer from a consortium of Eastern Washington counties that run Martin Hall, a facility near Spokane that accommodates 63 youths. Most of the counties in the consortium don’t have their own facility.

Sending local youths to Martin Hall has also been considered numerous times by previous boards of county commissioners, going back at least to 2003, according to retired Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard, who toured the facility that year.

The commissioners also heard from representatives from Chelan County, who described their new facility in Wenatchee. But the Chelan staff also recommended that the commissioners update the local facility to be able to keep kids in this county if possible, said Campbell.

Campbell said sending youths out of the county would also have introduced unknown factors, such as where a child would be held prior to booking.

It also appeared it could be more expensive to send them elsewhere, he said. Daily costs for housing and programs were calculated at $112 in Okanogan and — without transportation — at $120 in Chelan and $155 at Martin Hall, according to Dennis Rabidou, the juvenile court administrator.

Needed upgrades

While Okanogan’s facility would benefit from upgrades, there is nothing that makes it noncompliant, said Rabidou. The most urgent issues — including the roof, electronics and audio monitoring — have been replaced or repaired. Cracks have been inspected and do not affect the structural integrity of the building, he said.

Rabidou agreed that having doors on a rail system instead of doors that open in or out would be better, but the existing doors are in compliance, said Rabidou. The outdoor recreation area needs minor repairs, he said.

The list in the proposal for the justice complex included what Rabidou called “fancier stuff.” In fact, he said the needs in the courthouse to improve privacy and security are greater than those in the juvenile facility.

Campbell said he wasn’t aware that problems had been fixed and that the facility complies with regulations. “It we have been nice if we had known — it was a lot of extra work and running around,” he said.

Now that the commissioners have decided to keep the facility here, the next step will be to have an engineer do a thorough evaluation of the facility and any structural needs, said Campbell. Any changes will be made with an eye toward the long-term future of the facility, potentially increasing the capacity from 10 to 20 youths, said Campbell.

The process will include input from all affected departments, said Rabidou.

The county will also assemble all of the information gathered during this fact-finding process so it can be referred to in the future.

Once the commissioners and other county staff know what’s needed and what it will cost, they will have to find a way to fund any renovations or repairs. That could be a bond or tax increase; either would most likely be put to the voters, according to the minutes of the June 21 meeting.

“The bottom line is that it was good that the commissioners stated — several times, on the record — that they will keep the detention services in Okanogan County,” said Rabidou.