After decades running their own juvenile facilities, Hennepin and Ramsey counties are taking the unusual step of teaming up to plan a joint residential treatment center for teenage criminal offenders.

Officials say that the new facility, which won’t open at least until 2019, will save both counties money, upgrade the aging facilities that now exist and allow the counties to expand services.

“It shouldn’t matter if you’re a young person living east or west of the Mississippi River … you should have access to the same continuum of services,” said Ryan O’Connor, Ramsey County’s policy and planning director.

For several years, the two counties have explored replacing their state-licensed facilities — the Hennepin County Home School in Minnetonka and Ramsey County’s Boys Totem Town in St. Paul — with a joint facility for teens.

Last month, each county’s board approved moving forward with the third planning phase — enlisting an architectural consultant, finalizing the joint facility site and determining costs — before final approval and construction.

Construction is estimated to cost at least $37 million, and the counties are asking for $18 million for the facility in the state’s upcoming bonding bill.

Staffers for both counties are working on the logistics of having one facility that is expected to draw 126 to 163 juveniles at a time. They meet next on Jan. 25, and a final report is due by March 2017.

For more than 100 years, courts have sent juveniles to the Hennepin Home School, located on a wooded 167-acre site in Minnetonka, and Totem Town, an 80-acre site in St. Paul. Before 2008, 160 kids typically lived in the seven cottages at the Hennepin facility, some remaining there longer than a year.

However, not only are the facilities and their infrastructure aging, demand for them and detention centers like Minneapolis’ juvenile jail has declined as treatment of juvenile offenders has shifted to in-home treatment.

About 40 kids now live in three cottages at the Hennepin facility, usually for four to six months. Totem Town, which can accommodate 80, now has about 30 boys.

But officials said residential facilities are still needed for safety reasons or for teens who break probation and commit another crime.

They haven’t picked a location for a joint facility but haven’t ruled out one of the current sites. They prefer a site centrally located and near public transportation.

“We’re trying to help [juveniles] be successful in the community,” said Randy Bacon, Hennepin County’s acting superintendent.

Getting the tools

At Hennepin County’s bucolic home school site in Minnetonka, with its rolling hills and tall pine trees near Glen Lake, residents get therapy and behavioral treatment, work with a social worker and go to classes ranging from history to woodworking. They learn life skills and how to transition out of gangs.

They are court-ordered to be there after committing a felony, such as a burglary. A separate program works with juvenile sex offenders.

Girls and boys are separated, wearing uniforms and attending small classes. They get to make two phone calls a week and have to earn privileges such as recreation time.

Inside, the school looks like any other, with a gym, library, cafeteria, even inspirational signs hanging near the lockers. One reads: “My life is a work in progress.”

In teacher Matt Sabin’s industry arts class, six teen boys dreamed of what they’d do if they won the lottery. One talked about opening a barber shop, another paying for college, still another starting a community center.

“I have 16 days left,” one older teen announced proudly to Bacon, reciting a maxim: “Don’t do illegal activity.”

“Don’t do illegal activity or you end up here,” another teen added. “Me being here, I’m getting tools and I’m going to use those tools.”

Prime real estate

Acres of land once used for farming surround the Hennepin facility. It’s prime real estate off Interstate 494 and County Road 62, next to a golf course and wetland, and developers already are pouncing with inquiries.

Ramsey County’s Totem Town, which houses only boys, has been at its St. Paul site since 1913 and offers schooling, family therapy and a day treatment center. Its dormitory is the second-oldest building owned by the county.

“We can do better in an up-to-date, modern facility,” O’Connor said.

Over the years, both counties have discussed renovating their respective facilities; in 2011, they started discussing the possibility of merging. Besides saving money — Hennepin spends $11 million a year operating its facility while Ramsey spends $5 million — a single facility could also boost the services the counties offer.

“If we join forces … if we pool our resources, we can probably provide more and better resources,” Bacon said. “Our expectation is we’ll continue to do the excellent work we’re doing — and then some.”

Next steps

Among both counties’ commissioners, only Ramsey County Commissioner Janice Rettman has voted against the merger. She has expressed concern about Ramsey surrendering control of its juvenile program to its more populous neighbor to the west.

There are no plans for the counties to merge any other programs in the future, but future collaboration isn’t being ruled out.

“Together we could have more robust treatment options for youth and we could also keep more youth in the Twin Cities,” said Angie Cousins, Hennepin County’s project coordinator. “Everybody has the eye on the same goal: We want to have excellent services for youth.”