Sonoma County is set to shift its residential probation program for teenage girls to a private operator under a proposal endorsed Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
The cost-saving move would close Sierra Youth Center, the county probation camp that has served troubled girls since 1979 in a corner of the juvenile justice campus off Highway 12 in the Valley of the Moon.
The center’s high annual cost — about $1.4 million — and its declining population — down to average of eight girls since last summer — had made it a target for elimination in budget cuts since 2010.
Supervisors again balked earlier this year at taking that step, agreeing to study the issue further under pressure from advocates who said few good alternatives exist for the county’s highest-risk girls.
On Tuesday, however, the full board backed a recommendation from two of its members — Valerie Brown and Efren Carrillo — that a private organization be chosen to run a similar residential-type program on the juvenile justice campus.
The switch would save the county an estimated $550,000 to $860,000 a year, county staff reported.
Brown, whose district includes Sierra, said the decision to close the center was a difficult one. The replacement program, she said, would aim to preserve a similar level of services for girls as well as the network of community groups and volunteers that have backed the program over the years.
“Losing that engagement by those volunteers was something we didn’t want to deal with,” Brown said.
Opponents of Sierra’s closure did not speak at the hearing, which was sparsely attended.
One Sierra supporter who urged the board to consider maintaining a county-run program said she was disappointed with the board’s decision.
But Caroline Keller, a retired school administrator and Oakmont resident reached by phone Tuesday, also said she would wait to see how the outsourced effort takes shape.
“We don’t know enough about what it’s going to look like,” Keller said. “My goal is to have a program for the girls that will meet their needs.”
Supervisors were adamant Tuesday that they shared the same goal.
“What we’re trying to do is provide a very high level of service for these girls realizing there is a constraint on dollars,” said Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman.
The county’s fiscal crisis has led to the outsourcing of a number of other public services in recent years, including drug and alcohol treatment. On Tuesday, supervisors authorized the first deal to turn over operation and maintenance of one of five county-owned veterans buildings eyed for private management.
Labor leaders have criticized the practice, bemoaning the loss of well-paid government jobs and transfer of duties to lower-paying employers. Supervisors have touted the shift as a growing collaboration with the private sector, what they call “community-based organizations.”
“This is an opportunity to strengthen what the county does best,” Carrillo said Tuesday, praising services delivered through private sector partnerships.
By August, county officials plan to select a licensed operator for the replacement program, which will be based out of four county-owned homes on the juvenile justice campus.
The effort is slated to be up and running as soon as November, with Sierra’s closure to happen around the same time.
The new facility would be designed to handle a maximum of 18 girls and a minimum of six. Sierra’s current maximum is 15, though a sharp drop in the number of girls qualifying for the program had brought the recent population down to as few as four girls lately, officials said.
Annual county costs for the privately-run program would vary depending on its population. After rental revenue of about $82,000, a 10-bed operation would cost $611,000, a 15-bed operation $890,000 and a six-bed operation $581,000, according to county figures for 2013-2014. Projected costs for the upcoming fiscal year are higher, $1,181,000, due to closure of Sierra and startup of the new program.
County costs for the new program would be covered by the general fund, with most of it drawn from the Human Services department. The probation department, now the sole source of Sierra funding, would kick in about $135,000 for a probation officer assigned to the new program.
The 11 county employees at Sierra, including nine correctional counselors, will be shifted into open positions at juvenile hall, said Bob Ochs, the probation chief.
Ochs said $150,000 in state grant funds will also be dedicated to adding a non-residential evening reporting program for girls, similar to an existing one that offers counseling and training to boys, who make up 85 percent of the county’s juvenile offender population.
County general services officials will decide what to do with the building now occupied by Sierra Youth Center, Ochs said.