Aging buildings and precipitous drops in the number of juveniles sent to residential treatment have Ramsey and Hennepin counties looking to each other for help with their fading juvenile home schools.

Both counties agreed in early August to meet and see whether they could work together on a new facility somewhere in the geographic middle of the Twin Cities.

“Both the Hennepin and Ramsey County boards have the problem of old juvenile corrections facilities that need significant work,” Hennepin Board Chairman Mike Opat said. “We also know that operating a facility together could benefit both counties and the kids we serve. A joint project is not for certain but deserves consideration.”

Hennepin County runs a home school on 167 lush acres along County Road 62 on the eastern edge of Minnetonka — land that would be highly marketable for another use. Ramsey County operates Boys Totem Town, a residential campus for juvenile delinquents in St. Paul’s Battle Creek. Currently, Hennepin has about 50 residents at the school; Ramsey County has about 20. Both are down at least half from their peak.

The urban juvenile system has been an unmitigated success in recent years, largely because of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Fewer juveniles are being stashed in home schools and detention centers. Assistant Hennepin County Administrator Mark Thompson touted the initiative’s method of keeping juveniles in their homes to teach them and their parents coping skills rather than dropping them into the home school. The trend of sending young men to out-of-state facilities has slowed recently.

No one, however, expects to eliminate the need for a residential facility to treat youths ages 13-20 for problems from crime to sexual abuse. But both boards agree the timing is right for merger talks. Only Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman voted against a merger discussion out of concern for surrendering control to the larger Hennepin County.

“The rebuilding of Totem Town is something that we are committed to, and if we need to add more services there, I’m prepared to do that there and make sure we’re east-metro strong, and not be dwarfed by the much bigger entity of Hennepin County,” Rettman said.

But other Ramsey commissioners see merit in a partnership.

“That is old thinking,” Commissioner Rafael Ortega said of Rettman’s comments. “I am not scared of Hennepin County or that they’re going to consume us. … I think we need to move forward, and I hope that we move forward with these kinds of partnerships in many other areas.”

Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt said Ramsey County will make a decision only after a thoughtful process.

But she conceded: “Granted, once we start down this path, the odds are that we will come up with something that will work for both counties. To me, that doesn’t make us any less strong. … This joint facility, if that’s what we end up doing, may be at the Boys Totem Town location.”

Totem Town below capacity

Last year, the county enlisted Huskey and Associates, a Chicago consultant, to analyze the possibilities. Huskey came back with several options, including partnering with another county and building a joint Totem Town/juvenile detention center on a new site. It said a 38-bed facility was needed, and advised adjusting services to discourage confinement for nonviolent youth.

Huskey found that young men housed at other long-term facilities were more likely to reoffend than those at Totem Town, which offers schooling, family therapy and a day treatment center.

The current capacity of Totem Town is 36, but the population was under 20 last week and has hovered around that figure in recent months, said Chris Crutchfield, a spokesman for Ramsey County Community Corrections.

As recently as 2006, the facility could house up to 86 juveniles. Since then, juvenile arrests have dropped, allowing the county to reduce staff.

“Insofar as a combined Hennepin-Ramsey facility goes, there are things that make a lot of sense there but also a tremendous amount of questions. … We’re still looking at whether or not it’s feasible,” Crutchfield said.

Founded in 1908 in downtown St. Paul as the county home for boys, Totem Town moved to its current wooded site five years later. The campus consists of a dormitory built in 1936 and a security unit built in 1994. The dormitory, Crutchfield said, “has really outlived its usefulness.”

The Ramsey board also voted to seek up to $5 million in bonding for a facility and land. County officials say both Totem Town and the Hennepin County Home School need to be completely renovated, or at least have significant work done to preserve and maintain them. Both facilities suffer from poor layouts and design.

Staff, commissioners and juvenile judges from both counties will spend the next few months developing suggestions for the county boards. The boards expect to get a work plan by March 1, 2015, that details costs, governance, staffing, size and construction timeline.

Don’t expect additional mergers soon. Opat said he views this as a unique opportunity — not a trend.