Juvenile justice unit being readied in Butler County

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Three dozen beds in a private, state-of-the-art facility in northeast Butler County are being readied for children in trouble. The president judge of Butler County and judges from several surrounding counties intend to send juveniles in the court system to the new detention center.

Some officials, though, have concerns about the facility, which is being built by the same entrepreneurs who have had a troubled run with a similar juvenile center in Luzerne County.

County officials there ended up paying almost double the daily amount per child after judges began sending children to the center, opened by Gregory Zappala and Robert Powell in 2003 in Pittston. When state auditors and the county controller raised questions about overcharging and double-billing by the firm, it sued them, saying their audit violated trade secrets.

Butler County President Judge Thomas J. Doerr said he didn't know the details of the Luzerne County case. He said that if the state licenses the Allegheny Township facility, he intended to use it, because the county, with no juvenile center of its own, has had to transport children up to 200 miles for detention or shelter services.

The center is being built by Western Pa. Child Care, run by Zappala, a Cranberry investment banker who is the brother of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr., and Luzerne County lawyer Robert Powell. Their other facility, Luzerne County Juvenile Center, was established by a separate firm, Pa. Child Care.

Doerr would make the decision on whether to send Butler County juveniles to the center in the Allegheny Clarion Valley Industrial Park, Commissioner Glenn L. Anderson said.

"Then, of course, if he made that decision, the commissioners would sign the contract with the center" for services, said Anderson, who added that he had visited the facility and talked about it with Zappala.

"What I liked about it, it's 100 new jobs," Anderson said. "They'll need caseworkers, schoolteachers, administration, maintenance."

The center was scheduled to open in July, but Michael Noyes, Butler County's director of community corrections, said he thought it would not be open before late summer.

Western Pa. Child Care has not applied to the state for a license, nor has it provided a program description, Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Stacey Ward said. If it applies soon and there are no major hurdles, "A late summer opening wouldn't be unreasonable," she said.

The facility has 36 beds, and could add up to 36 more, according to Noyes.

Butler County couldn't begin to fill all the beds, Anderson said, but the center is expected to draw from other counties.

"When I found they were interested in locating in the county, I met with them [and] gave them suggestions as to what would make a facility work," Doerr said. Zappala told him the number of juveniles placed by Butler County would not be sufficient to support a private facility, Doerr said.

"So the concept was developed based on the fact that, within the entire region of Western Pennsylvania, there are insufficient secure beds, also insufficient nonsecure beds for females. What I suggested to him was that he would meet with judges surrounding Butler. None of us have facilities. We are all sending kids up to a couple hundred miles."

Doerr said he volunteered to contact judges in neighboring counties to arrange discussions of the facility.

"So [Zappala] met with judges from surrounding counties to find out, 'If I build it, will you come?' The answer was, 'Yes, if you are licensed and have the appropriate services, of course. There's no competition.' "

In that initial meeting, Butler, Lawrence, Mercer, Clarion and Venango counties showed interest, Doerr said.

If neighboring Beaver County closes its aging Allencrest Juvenile Detention Center, it might send its juveniles to the Western Pa. Child Care facility, although Zappala and Powell also are proposing to build a detention center in Beaver County. Beaver County Commissioner Charles Camp said the county was considering closing Allencrest, which is expensive to maintain, or contracting with a private company to run it. A decision is not expected before the end of summer, he said.

Luzerne County Controller Stephen Flood, a fierce opponent of Pa. Child Care and one of the three people sued by Zappala and Powell, said Luzerne County taxpayers were not well-served by the deals made with Pa. Child Care.

"Pa. Child Care came into the Pittston area and said they were going to build a child-care center. There was nothing about prisons. They didn't apply for permits," Flood said. "The next thing you know, they're building a juvenile detention center. They don't have any customers. We have our own center. It's old, but it passed inspection."

After the center was finished in 2003, the county judges ordered the old center closed and immediately began sending children to the Pa. Child Care center, Flood said.

There was no contract between the firm and the county when the county began sending juveniles, Flood said.

"So they draw up a quickie contract at $292 a day. We were averaging about $150, $160 a day to house juveniles in the old center. We became the 100 percent area to place kids there. No one else [in surrounding counties] was sending kids there, because they could get the service for less elsewhere."

Luzerne judges, meanwhile, increased the number of juveniles being sent to detention.

"From 200 juveniles a year placed, we went to 450 a year after we started placing in Pa. Child Care's JD center," Flood said.

"At that time, I started an investigation into cost, how the whole thing came about, why would they build in a county that didn't request it," Flood said. Then he learned that county commissioners planned to lease the center from Pa. Child Care for 20 years at a cost of $58 million.

Flood called the lease "unbelievable," with cost-of-living increases that he said would drive the price to $80 million over the 20-year life of the contract. County commissioners dispute that number.

State auditors from the Department of Public Welfare began to investigate, and in their preliminary report criticized the company and the proposed lease. The center collected some of the highest rates in the state, overcharged the county by $280,000 and made $1 million in profits over two years, according to the auditor's unfinished report.

One of the auditors sent a letter suggesting that officials wait for the final audit before signing the lease.

But the two of three county commissioners in favor of the lease said they expected to house juveniles from surrounding counties and to bring in $500,000 a year, saving taxpayers money. According to Flood, the center brought in $8,900 in the first five months of this year.

Powell and Zappala filed suit in December against Flood and state Department of Public Welfare officials, alleging that the release of the audit documents, which Flood made available to the Times-Leader newspaper, revealed trade secrets.

The suit, which was sealed by Luzerne County President Judge Michael Conahan, halted the state audit and Flood's attempts to get information. County commissioners approved the lease agreement in late December.

Ward, the Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman, said she could not discuss the audit or its findings because of the lawsuit.

Butler County Controller John R. McMillin Jr. said he was dubious about using the Western Pa. Child Care facility because he expected its rates to be higher than those in current contracts the county has with other centers.

The per-diem rate for juvenile detention is negotiated by individual counties, Ward said.

The rates at juvenile centers vary substantially from county to county and according to the type of service offered, but secure facilities, those with locked doors and guards, cost more, as do those that offer treatment as opposed to simple detention. Secure facilities with treatment services, where juveniles who have committed violent crimes are often sent, are the most expensive.

Nicole Remsburg, executive director of the Juvenile Detention Centers Association of Pennsylvania, of which the Luzerne County Juvenile Center is a member, said the state average for secure detention was $250 a day. She didn't have a comparable number for the cost of housing juveniles awaiting trials or sentencing, but it is generally substantially lower, because treatment isn't included.

In Luzerne County, Pa. Child Care was charging $292 and $322 a day for the two types of services.

Butler County, using a number of facilities, pays less than $150 a day for pre-adjudication services, McMillin said. For secure detention and treatment services, the county pays from $175 to $275, McMillin said.

Noyes, however, said the average paid was "upwards of $200 per day" for simple detention and in the $250 to $300 per day range for secure detention and treatment services.

Doerr said that, in addition to the detention costs themselves, the county must pay to transport juveniles to other counties, including overtime pay to probation officers who accompany them. Those added costs mean that even if the per-diem costs are higher at the new facility, the county will save on the other costs.

"Seeing as how in the last several years we have had to keep kids in hotels and pay probation officers to stay 24 hours with them [and] we have had to drive up to 200 miles to a facility, I am so thrilled to have somewhere within county to use. I can't wait," he said.

Powell and Zappala could not be reached to comment. But Zappala told the Butler Eagle newspaper last month that he thought the charges would be around $200 and $300 a day for the two types of detention.

Anderson said he was aware of the dispute in Luzerne County and the lawsuit.

"I don't know who was right and who was wrong in Luzerne. They keep trying to spread that we should be upset with this company. I never heard of the company before, but I do know Greg Zappala. He's a nice guy, and what I'm hearing from him, and about the other side, I think there's a little bit of a personality problem. As long as they bring 100 job here, I'm happy."


Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.


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