Juvenile facility to cost double the initial estimate

June 07, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Opening the state's first new residential treatment facility for juvenile offenders in years will cost about twice as much as officials first estimated.

The Victor Cullen Academy in Frederick County, due to open July 1 on the site of a defunct privately run facility, will cost the state about $11.2 million in renovations, plus $5.8 million to run it for the next year - well over the $6.8 million the legislature approved for the project this spring, officials said yesterday.

The state Board of Public Works approved a contract yesterday for roofing repairs that are part of the renovation, despite reservations from Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp and Comptroller Peter Franchot about the reliability of cost estimates for the project.

Gov. Martin O'Malley defended the spending, saying the need for additional residential treatment beds has long been great and became more so this spring when the death of a Baltimore youth prompted closure of the Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Carroll County.

"When Bowling Brook was closed and we found ourselves in a jam, I pushed [the Department of Juvenile Services] to get something going," O'Malley said. "We need to get something done by July 1. Part of this is we're catching up with an urgent situation because of the lack of any place in the state to put kids."

The costs at Victor Cullen, which by law can hold no more than 48 children, point to the difficulties the O'Malley administration faces in its attempts to transform the state's violence-prone juvenile justice system. O'Malley and his juvenile services secretary, Donald W. DeVore, have pledged to develop small, regional treatment centers around the state, but the cost overruns at Victor Cullen suggest that doing so could be a difficult proposition at a time when Maryland faces large budget deficits.

"The type of commitment that's going to be necessary to fix juvenile services has been, and will continue to be, very large," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and a leading advocate for juvenile justice reform. "It's impossible to fix juvenile services on the cheap."

In the case of Victor Cullen, the initial budget underestimated the costs of electrical work, renovations to air conditioning systems, computer network infrastructure and other costs.

Neil Bergsman, chief financial officer for the Department of Juvenile Services, said the buildings, which have sat vacant for five years, had deteriorated more than state officials initially thought. He said asbestos and mold remediation have been expensive.

Bergsman said the facility also never had proper telephone and computer infrastructure, which is necessary both for the staff's updating of the department's case management system and for the educational and vocational training programs that the department plans to run at the facility.

In all, he said, the project will cost about $17 million. The General Assembly approved $6.8 million, and the department had anticipated adding about $3 million that it would have spent to house the youths elsewhere.

General Services Secretary Alvin C. Collins, whose department is helping manage the project, said he doesn't expect more surprises now that the state has revised its initial estimate.

"That was based on some assumptions, and there were things we didn't know," Collins said. "We're very sure the construction costs we're now talking about are real."

Zirkin said it will require a strong commitment by the O'Malley administration and the legislature to revamp juvenile services at a time of budget shortfalls - state revenues are expected to fall as much as $1.5 billion short of expenditures next year. But he said it would be a wise investment.

"They're going to have to open up new facilities around the state, and it's going to be expensive," Zirkin said. "But in the long run, you save a lot more than what you're spending right now. If you don't do this, if you don't build the right type of facilities, what you end up with is paying for people to live in our jails. They're going to have to do this."

andy.green@baltsun.com

Online

Previous coverage of problems at Maryland juvenile detention facilities at baltimoresun.com/juvenile

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