Sonoma County is set to turn over its residential probation program for teenage girls to a private operator, the latest county service to be outsourced to the private sector in an effort to save money.
The shift, scheduled to go before the Board of Supervisors today, is designed to provide a similar level of supervision and help for the troubled teenagers, but at lower cost to taxpayers, county officials said.
It follows decisions in recent years to turn over other county services, including alcohol and drug treatment and management of five county-owned veterans buildings, to private companies or nonprofits.
Another decision coming next month could extend private operation of the county landfill -- now covered by an interim 2-year-old contract -- for as long as 30 years.
Today's board vote likely marks the end for the Sierra Youth Center, the county's 34-year-old probation camp for girls, tucked into a corner of the juvenile justice campus off Highway 12 in the Valley of the Moon.
Since its inception, the center has used gardening projects, a Girl Scout troop, job training, art workshops, and even yoga classes to provide round-the-clock, court-ordered supervision to hundreds of teenage girls. Many of its residents have multiple arrests for drug and gang activity, theft and other crimes.
But preparations are under way for the center to close Thursday, after three remaining girls return to outside homes. No layoffs are expected from the closure.
County supervisors authorized the turnover last year, citing probation reports that showed a declining population at Sierra -- which was equipped to handle 15 girls but was down to eight at the time -- and its high fixed costs, at about $1.6 million a year.
The county cost for the new program, to be run nearby on the juvenile justice campus by Crossroads Treatment Centers, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group home operator, is slated to be about a third to half that amount.
The savings, plus the drop in the number of girls, justified the switch, said Bob Ochs, the county's chief probation officer, who has advanced the proposal under fire from Sierra supporters.
He said a new set of career classes could give an extra boost to girls in the new program, which is due to open in March.
"I think we have great potential," he said.
Critics who came forward last year to oppose Sierra's closure, including some youth advocates, have either expressed tentative support for the change or said they would withhold their judgement for now.
"If it develops the way it's been proposed, it could provide some services that the girls at Sierra have not had," said Caroline Keller, a retired school administrator and Oakmont resident who has served on an advisory committee for the youth center.
"How it actually plays out, it's too soon to know," she added.
The center's fate had been hotly disputed in budget hearings since 2010. Supervisors defended their decision in June to close the facility, touting the switch to a private operator as the best way to maintain a program within tighter budgets.
Labor leaders criticized the move and have taken aim at the outsourcing trend, citing risks they say it poses for public services, as well as its effect on the workforce. Private employers offer lower salaries and less benefits for jobs with similar levels of training, they contend.