House committee recommends closing Nome Youth Facility

The Nome Youth Facility. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KNOM)
The Nome Youth Facility. (Photo by Laura Kraegel/KNOM)

A subcommittee of the Alaska House of Representatives has recommended closing the Nome Youth Facility. The closure would save more than a million dollars outright, but some say it would come at the expense of children who live in Western Alaska.

The Nome Youth Facility serves 28 communities surrounding Nome and Kotzebue. Last week, the Department of Health and Social Services House Finance Subcommittee recommended the state shut it down.

“We reduced funding to the Nome Youth Facility in the amount of $1,693,900, which deletes 15 full-time positions and three temporary positions and would close the facility,” said Representative Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River), the subcommittee chair.

Saddler said the recommendation comes as an adjustment to Governor Bill Walker’s budget proposal, aimed at shrinking the state’s deficit.

Juvenile Justice Director Rob Wood said generally low and fluctuating numbers at the Nome Youth Facility in the last few years probably played a role in the recommendation.

“Realistically, if you look at detention numbers, they just go up and down quite a bit. And we don’t control those numbers,” he said. “Those are based on law enforcement investigations and arrests.”

He said the Nome Youth Facility’s rural location makes lower numbers — and higher operating costs — stand out.

But Wood said the facility’s location is also one of its strengths. He said having a facility in Nome allows young offenders around the Bering Strait Region to rehabilitate near home, rather than leave for Fairbanks or Anchorage. They can even participate in local activities like fishing and hiking on the tundra.

“One of the reasons we have the Nome Youth Facility is because we thought it was important where it is. We think they do a really good job for the area, not just the community,” he said. “So this is hard for us, but we’re still talking. A lot of this is negotiable.”

The full House Finance Committee will consider the recommendation as part of the proposed FY17 budget for the Department of Health and Social Services. Wood said it’s hard to tell whether it will pass, but he knows difficult cuts have to be made.

In the meantime, Nome Public Schools is one of the local entities waiting for a final decision. Superintendent Shawn Arnold said the closure would affect the district’s student enrollment and state funding.

“We actually run a school out of the Youth Facility, and this cut will be pretty significant for us,” said Arnold. “So it’s not just going to impact the Youth Facility. It’s going to impact our district as well.”

The Nome Youth Facility can house 14 juvenile offenders at a time, and it’s one of eight youth facilities in Alaska. Three others also face state funding cuts.

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