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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors delays vote on Sierra Youth Center

Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 7:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 1:34 p.m.

A majority of Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday voiced support for a proposal to outsource the county's residential probation program for teenage girls to a private operator.

The shift ran into strong pushback, however, from Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, who said plans for career training were not on par with the courses offered to troubled boys under county care.

Zane said she would oppose the deal at the board's meeting next week if additional coursework and funding weren't added into to the final proposal.

"If they don't address the parity issue, they don't have my vote," Zane said in an interview after a nearly two-hour board hearing on the matter.

Supervisors Efren Carrillo, David Rabbitt and Mike McGuire, meanwhile, voiced approval for the cost-saving move. It was initiated by the board last year -- after years of wrangling over the fate of Sierra Youth Center, the girls probation camp -- to address the center's dwindling population of girls and its high-fixed cost, at $1.6 million a year.

The replacement program, to be run at half to a third the cost by a Sacramento-based group home provider, would satisfy most county goals, the three supervisors said.

"This is a decision that we've agonized over," McGuire said. "We have to remember that many counties have simply thrown up their hands and done away with their programs."

A board vote was postponed to next Tuesday to allow more time to review the contract with Crossroads Treatment Centers, the nonprofit group home operator chosen for the new program.

The 34-year-old Sierra Youth Center, tucked in a corner of the juvenile justice campus off Highway 12 in the Valley of the Moon, is still scheduled to close Thursday. Its three remaining girls were being returned to outside homes this week. The center's staff of 10 are all being moved to the nearby juvenile hall.

A final board decision would follow a series of moves by the county in recent years to outsource services to companies and nonprofits to save money.

Lower salaries paid by private sector employers underpin many of the deals. County correctional counselors at Sierra started at $25 per hour, officials said Tuesday, while Crossroads representatives said their residential care staff start at $10 to $14 per hour.

"It is troubling when we start outsourcing all of these services," said Zane, who has opposed some of the program moves but led others.

Most of Tuesday's board debate centered on the scope of career training offered to girls under the new program. Probation officials had tapped $65,000 from their budget to cover a pair of courses, in office and computer skills and culinary work.

But Zane and Gorin argued for a broader plan taking in coursework in the trades and other vocational training.

County education officials said they were poised to deliver on the larger set of courses and career opportunities once the program had a chance to get under way.

But advocates pushed for more immediate details, plus additional spending to bring girls' career programs closer to the average of $20,000 spent for each boy under county residential supervision. Gorin called the push an "attempt, right here today, to think differently about the programs that we're providing our young women."

"Why is it so hard for the board to express this? We want equal opportunity for the girls" said Michael Canar, an Oakmont resident who was involved in a campaign to save the youth center last year.

Carrillo and Rabbitt took issue with the comparison to spending on boys, noting there are at least twice as many as boys as girls under residential probation in the county and that boys often have more serious and violent crimes.

"It's a different population," Carrillo said.

Rabbitt argued that identical career classes for both sexes would not necessarily achieve parity.

"The parity issue is that everyone has the same opportunity," he said. "It doesn't mean everyone has to do the same thing."

The lobbying prompted swift moves Tuesday afternoon by probation officials to seek additional job training elements for the proposal. Chief Probation Officer Bob Ochs said he would recommend an additional $30,000 in educational spending for the first year of the program.

"We heard the response today," Ochs said. "I think we're going to do whatever we can to respond to the concerns."

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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