With a highly publicized sexual assault last month resulting in its temporary closure, the Baldwin County Residential Wilderness Program is now facing questions about its funding from the Baldwin County Commission.
Also known as Camp Horizon, the camp near the North Baldwin community of Lottie was the site of an alleged sexual assault by a 15-year-old camper against a female employee in December. An investigation revealed the victim observed the 15-year-old walking alone on a nature trail next to one of the buildings at the camp. Authorities say when the victim approached the suspect in the woods she was attacked.
Baldwin County Commissioner Chris Elliott said safety concerns, as well as the camp’s nearly $5 million annual expense, should be reason enough for the commission to rethink its funding.
In its most recent budget, the commission provided $4.47 million for expenses at the camp, an alternative sentencing program for teenagers from Mobile, Baldwin and surrounding Alabama counties. Last year, Camp Horizon served 170 teenagers subject to court orders, but less than half were from Baldwin County.
According to Elliott, 83 of last year’s campers were sent there by the Baldwin County court system, while 87 came from elsewhere. Over the years, 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. Elliott said the county is not reimbursed for teens Camp Horizon hosts from other counties.
The county spends approximately $1 million in general fund money for the camp, while it bills Medicaid for approximately $4 million in expenses. The county’s cigarette tax also pays for $230,295 in expenses. This year, the the camp’s budget actually saw a 5 percent boost, up from $4.25 million the previous year. Meanwhile, Elliott said the program is currently $1.2 million in debt.
“We are reimbursed for four-fifths of the cost through Medicaid, but the rest is on Baldwin County,” Elliott said. “The camp always gets good reviews from other counties, but they aren’t the ones paying for it.”
According to Elliott, the county is able to bill Medicaid as long as the camp teaches the teenagers what the agency describes as “basic living skills.” Those billable skills include daily grooming, hygiene, housekeeping, nutrition, meal planning, cooking, money management, career planning, leisure skills, stress management and anger management.
When it opened in 2007 the camp only allowed girls, but the county made it an exclusively male facility in June 2012. In 2014, the camp opened its doors to girls again following a $2 million expansion. Today, the wilderness camp is home to a 16-bed girls’ facility and has 32 beds for boys.
Commission Chairman Tucker Dorsey said given the county’s investment, the program needs to be more accountable.
“There is no question it costs us a lot of money,” Dorsey said. “We need to see an increase in efficiency, especially after the expansion we approved. We want to see some financial stability there in revenue and expenses.”
Typically, teens enroll in the program for an average of six months. Last year, 18 campers did not complete the program; nine failed because of escapes, probation violations, destruction of property or assaults.
In 2015 it reported an 84 percent completion rate, with 60 residents graduating without new violations within the first six months of release. The previous year, its completion rate was 77 percent.
“I do still have some concerns but the program does a lot of good for a lot of kids,” Commissioner Skip Gruber said. “Incidents are going to happen there, but one bad egg can’t spoil the whole thing.”
County salary figures online show the camp is home to 61 county employees receiving more than $2.046 million in salaries and benefits. Reportedly, 14 camp employees are paid salaries greater than $40,000. An additional $91,553 is budgeted for salaries related to the camp’s dietary program. It receives $84,000 in Child Nutrition Program reimbursements.
The figures also show the camp employs seven therapists at an average $44,477.29 salary.
“The bottom line is I don’t think therapy for teenagers is the obligation of the county,” Dorsey said. “I realize this is something we’ve offered for a few years, but it just isn’t a primary function of government. We have other obligations that are much more important as far as how we spend taxpayer money.”
Elliott said none of the employees are law enforcement officials, and they are not allowed to carry guns or weapons onsite. Accordingly, Dorsey said, the camp is one of the county’s top liabilities, right behind the solid waste department.
On Jan. 5, the County Commission voted 3-1 to reopen the camp, which closed temporarily after the alleged sexual assault. It welcomed staff members the following day and female campers returned Jan. 8. Male campers were set to be phased in this week. Elliott was the commission’s lone “no” vote.
At the meeting, Camp Horizon Director Jennifer Lee acknowledged the need for further training of camp employees on safety measures and said officials will work hard to prove the program’s worth.
“I think we need to have some discussion about our safety practices,” she said. “The tools are there. We just may need to spend time addressing some of the gray areas. I think there are good practices in place that just need to be refined.”
Judge Carmen Bosch, who presides over Baldwin County’s juvenile cases, said some youths at the camp would have few options if the county stopped funding the program.
“This is a group of juveniles that would otherwise not have a means to receive this sort of treatment if not for this facility,” she said.
Dorsey plans to hold more discussions about the camp’s policies and procedures at the commission’s Jan. 26 work session.
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