Milledgeville YDC closure approved by board

The state Board of Juvenile Justice voted Thursday to approve budget cuts that include closing the Bill E. Ireland Youth Development Campus in Milledgeville by the end of the year. The YDC employs more than 300 people.

The Milledgeville YDC is the state’s oldest detention facility for juvenile offenders, and state officials say closing it will save $18.5 million.

Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley said he was “extremely disappointed” by the board’s decision.

“We really did what we thought necessary to appeal to the governor and to the (Department of Juvenile Justice) concerning the importance of the YDC to the community, and we offered an alternative for downsizing rather than closing it,” Bentley said.

The board voted 10-4 to approve the new department budget, department spokesman Steve Hayes said.

“The members that voted no, the Bill Ireland (campus) was the impetus for that vote, that and the employees who are there,” Hayes said. “All the members of the board were concerned about the job losses, but any alternatives would have resulted in cumulative job losses across the state.”

The budget will be submitted to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, which would adopt the proposal or make changes before Gov. Sonny Perdue submits his budget to the General Assembly. Perdue has asked all state departments to present program budget plans that cut spending by 4 percent, 6 percent and 8 percent.

Bentley said he will talk to state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, about appealing the decision to Perdue. Grant, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, had previously asked the juvenile board and Perdue to spread budget cuts to YDCs around the state.

Closing the Milledgeville YDC would be “very devastating” to Milledgeville and Baldwin County, Grant said two weeks ago when the board delayed a vote on the budget.

Bentley noted that the move to close Bill E. Ireland accounts for almost all of the $20 million in cuts in the Juvenile Justice Department budget.

“That concerns me in that we again have absorbed the brunt of state cuts,” the mayor said.

In addition to furloughs at Central State Hospital, Georgia College & State University and other facilities, the state last month closed a prison in nearby Hardwick, which employed almost 300 people.

Historically, state jobs have accounted for about one-third of employment in Milledgeville and Baldwin County, a higher per capita rate of any other area in Georgia, Grant said two weeks ago.

“It’s an awfully good advantage for us to have all those state facilities here,” Bentley said, “but when the economy turns like it has, it seems like Milledgeville is the first place they look.”

State spokesman Hayes said closing the Bill E. Ireland YDC is cost-effective because of the 40-acre facility’s age and condition.

“The facility is over 100 years old, and it’s spread out and costly to maintain and operate,” he said.

Last week, five 17-year-old offenders at the YDC were charged as adults after sparking a riot and leading the takeover of a building on the campus Sept. 1.

The state has a “master plan” for Baldwin County that includes building a new, 150-bed YDC, but Hayes said “that’s not something in the offing in the immediate or near future.”

The local appeal to save the YDC included a downsizing proposal that involved using some of the newer structures there — mostly cottages and other buildings less than 20 years old — to “create a facility within a facility” to house 150 juvenile offenders, Bentley said.

“That certainly would have accommodated that and saved some money,” he said.

The budget calls for the YDC to be closed by late December or early January. Its 300-plus employees would work until the facility closes and be assisted in finding new jobs, possibly at other YDCs, Hayes said.

“There will be no immediate effect on those employees,” he said.

In addition to state cuts, Milledgeville and Baldwin County also have been hit hard by private sector jobs losses this year. Shaw Industries and T&S Hardwoods shut down, and Rheem Manufacturing — the county’s largest private employer — is in the final stages of phasing out its air conditioner plant. The closings eliminated almost 1,500 jobs.

“We’re looking at an unemployment rate, I’m guessing, of 15 or 16 percent. We’ve always enjoyed a rate of 3 or 4 percent,” Bentley said.

“We’ve done just about anything we can to try to save those things. It’s just the way the economy is right now.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.