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North Neighborhoods
Discussion of site for juvenile facility raises ire

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

By Karen Kane, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The project hasn't officially become a project, but Butler County support for a juvenile detention facility in the county's northern reaches appears to be waning.

In the wake of dozens of phone calls, letters, and e-mail messages from those opposed to the idea, county Commissioner Glenn Anderson said recently he will not support the idea of a juvenile detention center where it's not wanted.

"If this is a project we're going to be involved with, I'd want to go someplace where it would be greeted with open arms," said Anderson, chairman of the county commissioners.

As for the other two commissioners, support ranges from tepid to nonexistent. Commissioner James Kennedy said he couldn't support a project he knew nothing about. Commissioner Joan Chew said she could be persuaded to support a detention center in Allegheny Township "only if the numbers worked and if we knew there'd be cooperation from other counties."

Anderson and Chew said they are befuddled by the outcry. "This was so preliminary," Chew said.

The project that wasn't a project got its start early this year when Anderson and his fellow commissioners heard that the placement of a juvenile at a residential facility in Ohio would cost the county $177 a day.

"I'd been thinking for a long time that we needed a place here in Butler County to put kids who were going into foster care or kids who had gotten into some trouble," Anderson recounted.

Likewise, Butler County President Judge Thomas Doerr had said publicly many times that something needed to be done to create a local juvenile detention facility. He had suggested that one day eyes be focused on the county's prison annex, after a new prison were built.

As Anderson tells it, he talked to Doerr and they each talked to Cranberry businessman Gregory Zappala, though memories are unclear as to who called whom.

They all agreed that Zappala would begin looking into the possibilities of building a juvenile detention facility in Allegheny Township, which is in the northeastern corner of the county, near the borders with Clarion, Venango and Armstrong counties.

"It just seemed like a good idea. Not a definite thing," Anderson said. But there was land available near the Allegheny Clarion Valley Development Corp.'s industrial development park, and the site is near three other counties which might want to share services.

Information was gathered about the site as county court officials collected numbers on what was being paid for juvenile placements and how many were being placed.

Zappala said he hasn't and won't charge the county for any time spent on the would-be project. "The direction was, 'If you want to spend your own money looking at this, then go ahead,' " Zappala recounted. County Controller John R. McMillin Jr. confirmed no bills have been submitted.

Though Zappala has conducted business with Butler County commissioners on behalf of RRZ Public Markets, a municipal bond underwriting firm in Cranberry, he said he was not acting on behalf of RRZ when he began working on the Allegheny Township project.

Rather, he said, he was acting as a principal of PA Childcare, which he describes as a Reading-based corporation that develops special use buildings. He said that PA Childcare, which has been in business about 18 months, has been involved in two projects. One is construction of a juvenile detention facility in Luzerne County; the other Zappala declined to describe.

As word got out that Zappala was asking questions and gathering information, Allegheny Township residents became furious.

"Nobody came to us and just said in a straightforward fashion that this was being considered. It looks sneaky to me," said Rachele Cratty of Allegheny Township.

Her neighbor, Denise Kuhn, agreed. "There wasn't a public meeting. There wasn't a vote. We just started hearing the rumors," she said.

Like many of their neighbors, both are against the idea of a juvenile detention facility in their area. They feel their property values would decline along with safety.

"This would be a lockdown facility. Don't tell me it wouldn't be dangerous," said Cratty, the mother of a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old.

Anderson said there was no effort to be secretive. "I can't tell you the number of ideas that are bounced around this place. If we talked about every one of them at our public meetings, we wouldn't be dealing with the business we have to deal with to keep government operating," Anderson said.

Chew agreed. "There was nothing to be brought up in public until there was something substantive to bring up. Are the numbers there to make it feasible? We don't even know that yet," she said. Anderson said he's no longer interested in pursuing the Allegheny Township site. "I think it's a shame. These kids need a place to go and a project like this would bring jobs to the area. But I don't want to shove anything at anybody," he said.

Zappala said the concept of a regional juvenile detention center still could be pursued.

"We don't have all the information we need to determine how it would work, but it certainly doesn't have to be in Allegheny Township," Zappala said.

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