County Needs To Take Lead On 4-H Facility At Former Honor Camp

By Lee White

Followers of our Facebook page may remember this story from The Hutchinson News. The story said the state was preparing to tear down the long-vacant honor camps at Toronto and El Dorado. In the case of the El Dorado facility, located just east of town on Twelfth Avenue, Butler County had sought to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the land, transfer the long-term lease from the state to the county so it could be used as a headquarters and fairgrounds for the 4-H program. How diligently the county sought the lease transfer is a matter for debate. Diligence was apparently lacking because the Corps declined to transfer the lease.

Until its closure in 2009, the camp benefited the inmate population, the state park, and local governments by engaging low-risk prisoners in work programs and even wildlife rehabilitation. Click here to view a story about the Honor Camp that appeared in the Los Angeles Times almost 32 years ago.

Add it to the list of riches the State of Kansas has squandered. A scant decade ago, Kansas’ fiscal policy — particularly its cash-basis law, which limits borrowing — was a model pundits contrasted with that of debt-ridden California. Today, California is thriving and Kansas is reeling from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts that didn’t draw enough new businesses or people to the state to cover revenue losses.

Brownback’s tax cuts were not matched by spending cuts. If they had been, the fiscal crisis that led to the Legislature reinstating income and corporate taxes over Brownback’s veto might have been averted, but the fallout would have been catastrophic. That’s because so many Kansans rely on “government cheese” for their livelihoods. This is especially true in rural areas where school districts dependent on subsidies from Topeka are often the only act in town.

Butler County has more going for it than other parts of Kansas. It is right next to Wichita, yet there seems to be an anti-Wichita mentality and an inability on the part of its leadership to grasp the concept that as Wichita goes, so goes Butler County. Beyond that, making the county attractive to families is a task that has fallen to the cities. Andover does it best, but Augusta and El Dorado are falling in line. Rose Hill is a sleeping giant that would thrive if its leaders could ever quit fighting among themselves.

The county long ago adopted land use policy that encourages people to live in cities. Although I agree with the policy — allowing a bunch of five-acre lots down every road would overburden county services — I believe the county’s role in economic development and promoting the kind of “quality of place” improvements that would spur growth of the tax base has atrophied in recent years.

People complain about the burgeoning drug culture in Butler County, yet they elect leaders who apparently weren’t aggressive enough in selling the Corps on a facility upgrade for 4-H that might save a few kids from becoming part of that seedy world. Residents elect leaders who say there’s no money for a drug task force, yet spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars a year propping up a jail that has failed to attract enough prisoners from outside agencies to pay for itself amid chronic staffing shortages. Meanwhile, Harvey County — with far fewer residents and a smaller tax base — somehow scrapes together enough to restart its drug task force and little ol’ Chase County houses so many federal immigration detainees that Uncle Sam pays for its entire corrections budget.

What’s wrong with this picture, folks? How come these adjoining counties can get the job done with far fewer resources? I can’t wait to hear the litany of excuses and red herrings, “you don’t live here” chief among them.

Maybe I labor under a misguided sense of duty to the few friends I have left in Butler County and to the legacies of guys who are no longer with us such as Dave Clymer, publisher of The El Dorado Times, and Sen. Frank Gaines. The former is the reason El Dorado Lake exists and that the City of El Dorado controls most of the water rights. The latter is the reason El Dorado State Park exists. Gaines struck a deal: If El Dorado would take the Honor Camp, he’d get his fellow legislators to fund a really nice state park. He may have been a Democrat, but Gaines delivered on his promise. As it turned out, the Honor Camp was almost as big a benefit as the state park and the inmates sure kept said park well-maintained.

Whatever the motive, I penned this letter to Brig. Gen. Paul E. Owen, commander and division engineer of the Southwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Dallas. It is my sincere hope that Gen. Owen will instruct his subordinates to take another look at transferring the Honor Camp lease from the state to the county so plans for a new 4-H facility can move forward. But if that happens, it will be up to Butler County officials to gather a delegation and make their case to the Corps. If they can’t be bothered to “seize the day,” then the voters of Butler County need to replace the three commissioners who are up for re-election this year, especially given the fact that there are myriad other reasons to do so.