The Baldwin County Commission will solicit private companies to gauge their interest in taking over the county’s Residential Wilderness Program, located in the north Baldwin community of Lottie, and asked camp director Jennifer Lee to abolish 15 of the camp’s 61 paid positions at its work session on Tuesday.
The Residential Wilderness Program, also known as Camp Horizon, came under fire from commissioners following a sexual assault there in December, when a teenage camper allegedly raped a camp employee.
Commissioners have questioned the $5 million annual operations cost at the camp, which served 170 court ordered juveniles last year. Of those 170 campers, less than half were from Baldwin County, while juveniles from at least nine Alabama counties — some as far away as Hale and Pickens counties in west Alabama — have been housed at the camp over the years. The Commission has never been reimbursed for the cost of housing out-of-county juveniles there.
Recently, commissioners asked Mobile and Escambia counties to start paying to send juveniles to the camp, but both declined to do so. In response, the commission has asked Purchasing Manager Wanda Gautney to prepare a request for proposals to see if there is a private entity interested in taking over daily operations at the camp.
“We need to make the RFP as wide open as possible,” Commissioner Chris Elliott said. “But I do want to make sure they continue doing something that is similar to what we are already doing there. We need to have this service for the, frankly, largely underprivileged section of our community, we just need to significantly reduce the liability to the county taxpayers.”
Commissioner Frank Burt said the camp has been a useful tool to reach teenagers who otherwise might have been shuffled in and out of jail for offenses deemed less serious. He said the county created Camp Horizon to rehabilitate children who still had time to turn their lives around for the better. The remote location gives the teenagers a chance to reflect on their lives in an open, outdoor setting.
“We put it way up there where it is so they could be in a remote place where they could hear the coyotes howl and see the stars and reflect on their lives,” Burt said. “We thought it would be a good outlet for rehabilitating the children, rather than just locking them up in the big house and sending them on to prison. We need to determine what’s the best way to go from here.”
Elliott said the camp provides a good service for the community, but he questioned whether a juvenile rehabilitation program is an essential function of county government.
“I understand these kids have the hardest time of anybody in the county, and they are lucky to be in the program,” Elliott said. “We know there are kids out there who need help like this, and to believe the county is wealthy and doesn’t have problems is misguided. But we have to decide how much money we are willing to spend to put a kid through the program, and should we even be doing that.”
The Commission also discussed staffing cuts at the facility, which currently operates with 61 employees paid $2.1 million in salaries. Ultimately, Lee and the Commission settled on abolishing 15 positions and focusing on shoring up the camp with a total of 32 juveniles, 16 boys and 16 girls, all from Baldwin County.
During the work session, Lee told commissioners there are 18 boys from Baldwin County currently in the program, but two will graduate from the program in April. There are 14 girls at the camp, with two from Mobile who will graduate in June, according to Lee.
For staffing cuts, Lee said many can be made through attrition by not replacing vacant positions.
Commissioner Skip Gruber said he hopes the Commission will come to a final decision soon, for the benefit of the juveniles and employees at the camp.
“We either need to fund it, however much it costs, or get out,” Gruber said. “I’m tired of going back and forth about numbers. We need to decide, does this Commission want to fund the program and keep it alive, or do we want to throw it in the garbage? If we are not willing to spend that money, we need to just come to that decision. We owe it to the kids there, to the staff, to Jennifer. If we aren’t willing to fund it, then that’s what we need to do.”