Business Az Usual

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"The state Social Services Department has already clearly made it known that Arizona's regulations don't meet California standards," he says. "So we're a little concerned about our options."

With the spotlight on its competitor in Arizona, VisionQuest is calling for more regulation of its industry. Ranalli says VisionQuest supports the California legislation because he believes VisionQuest can meet those standards.

"We have no problem with regulations," he says. "Regulations protect us and the kids."

The death of Nicholaus Contreraz, Ranalli says, is an argument for opening camps in California--something VisionQuest and Boys Ranch have both wanted to do for years.

"We totally believe that you should work with kids in their own state," he says. "And from their point of view, I can see them asking, 'Why the hell should we spend all this money in Arizona for our kids?'"

No matter what happens, the controversy has already taken a heavy toll on Boys Ranch.

On a recent afternoon, the main campus of the Arizona Boys Ranch was silent. The neatly manicured lawns and playing fields were empty. As CEO Bob Thomas toured the grounds, the place appeared deserted.

Thomas recently took a drastic step to keep Boys Ranch's biggest clients: He's offering California counties a discount on Boys Ranch's services for about $2,400 per kid (down from $3,600), the amount that the State of California no longer pays.

"We can't afford it," he says. "We did it out of our hearts, not our brains."

Thomas thinks Boys Ranch will weather this storm.
"I believe this is a short-term political exercise," he says. "These counties need Boys Ranch. . . . Without Boys Ranch, they [the teens] end up in the California Youth Authority."

Thomas believes the CDSS decision won't last much past the California governor's race, when a new administration will come into office.

And even if it does, he adds, there are other states that want to contract with Boys Ranch, though he declines to name them.

"We're not going to turn our back on the kids," he says. "We might be going through a rough time for a while, but we'll be around."

Thomas concedes things are going to get worse. Some key personnel--Thomas calls them his "real blue-chip people"--will be let go; some out-of-state offices will be closed; and some unspecified Boys Ranch programs will be shut down. And some donors have told him they will no longer contribute because of what they've seen in the news.

Wrapping up the tour of the campus, Thomas visited one of the dorms where the remaining boys are housed. One kid sat playing Nintendo, blowing away his enemies with a giant, black revolver that filled the screen.

Chris Burkhart, a forward on the Boys Ranch basketball team, says he's not too worried about getting sent back home. He thinks he's at Boys Ranch until he graduates. With fewer kids coming, he's concerned about the number of kids who'll be on the basketball team. "I'm a little worried about next year's bench," he says.

Thomas laughed when he heard the comment. "Yeah," he said. "The CEO is a little worried about the depth of next year's bench, too."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: [email protected]

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Chris Farnsworth