Capital Beat: Sununu Center faces $3 million budget shortfall

  • The State House dome as seen on March 5, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 11, 2018

There’s little question the Sununu Youth Center is at a crossroads.

The state juvenile detention facility is working toward reducing its bed counts, directed by legislation passed last year. And with plans underway to rebuild a wing to provide substance abuse treatment for teens, the Manchester facility is in some ways shifting identities.

Add to that a potential dilemma: a looming financial shortfall. According to Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers, recent cuts to the center’s budget have taken an unintended toll. With no action by legislators, the facility, run by Meyers’s department, will find itself in the red in fiscal year 2019, according to Meyers.

Exactly $3.6 million short, Meyers said this week – even under the best-case scenario.

So how did we get here? It started last spring, midway through the budget process. Amid concerns of bloated costs and underutilized services, legislators pushed to pare back the Sununu center, which since 2006 has served to house and rehabilitate teens determined “delinquent” by the courts.

The motives for reform were wide-ranging, but followed a simple theory: Teenagers with behavioral problems are better served in community treatment centers than in centralized institutions. Forced by court order into facilities that can feel punitive, some young people endure additional emotional trauma from a residential detention facility, legislators argued.

Reps. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, chairman of the Finance Committee, and Mary Jane Wallner, D-Concord, the committee’s ranking Democrat, pushed for an overhaul, co-penning a letter to the Monitor advocating for the downsizing.

Bills were proposed – and ultimately passed – to reduce the number of beds at the center by 35, find additional beds in community group homes, and amend youth sentencing guidelines to divert fewer teens to the facility. The transformation attracted bipartisan support. But along the way came the fiscal knives.

Under the governor’s budget proposal, the facility would have been funded with $12.1 million in Fiscal Year 2019. The final budget that cleared the House had cut that number almost in half.

Kurk said the budget was in direct response to the anticipated size reduction.

“When we did the budget for the Sununu center, we were quite clear that the center had to be reduced in size significantly because we were going to treat juveniles in the community,” Kurk said in a recent interview. “So the Sununu center budget was reduced accordingly.”

Today, Meyers says the math was off. According to department calculations, even if the facility reduced its average daily population to 30 to 35 youths – it presently houses around 42 – it would still require $10.8 million to run through fiscal year 2019. The amount budgeted for that year was only $7.2 million.

The center’s budget was cut arbitrarily – Meyers said – under the incorrect notion it would be proportionate to the new bed counts.

“If the average daily census is reduced, the reduction of youth does not translate into a dollar for dollar reduction in the operating cost of the facility,” he said.

Kurk said he trusts the amount appropriated, but has a backup source in case it does fall short: the alcohol fund. Under a provision passed last year, the Health and Human Services Commissioner has the power to request money from the fund, which presently includes 3.4 percent of state revenue from alcohol sales.

Kurk described it as a built-in backup.

“The concept was we need to have a safeguard just in case the number of children who require services at the Sununu center is much greater than anticipated,” Kurk said. “If we’re wrong ... we wanted to have a mechanism to be able to fund that unexpected emergency cost.”

But it’s a suggestion that isn’t taken well by members of the treatment community, who say those funds are meant to improve treatment efforts, not to fix budget errors.

“I can understand why someone would want to make sure that there is a safety valve available, but I don’t think it makes sense for the safety valve to be the funds for substance use treatment,” said Mike Skibbie, policy director of the state’s Disabilities Rights Center.

For his part, Meyers has said the department categorically opposes the use of Alcohol Commission resources for anything but substance abuse treatment. And a bill to repeal the provision allowing the move, House Bill 1743, is presently workings its way through the House Finance Committee.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Sununu argued the projected future shortfall isn’t much to worry about. The Legislature can always jump back in to fund the gaps through existing funds, he said.

“They allocated some dollars to the budget, always knowing we would have the flexibility to put those monies back in, and I’m fully confident that those monies can be put back in,” he said Wednesday. “There’s some flexibilities within the existing Health and Human Services budget to find ways to making sure we’re getting the most out of the Sununu center without overtaxing those services for the kids.”

Meyers said he’s in talks with the governor and Legislature to carve that path forward.

Still, with the department already facing federal funding shortfalls and stakeholders continually circling the trough, finding an existing $3.6 million to plug a budget gap may be easier said than done. In this Legislature, it usually is.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)