SYLVANIA - Emotions were charged last week during a town meeting called to discuss the uncertain future facing AMI Kids Savannah River Program in Screven County and to garner community support in an effort to save the program.
"The decision made by the Department of Juvenile Justice to rebid the program is a normal course of business," said Chuck McMullen, government affairs specialist for AMI with Piedmont Public Affairs in Atlanta.
There were two bids in place, he said, and the D.J.J., through the Department of Administrative Services, recently issued the notice of intent to award to another vendor.
The idea of AMI is to take juveniles near the end of their sentence in a hard core facility, said Wade Goss, AMI executive director, and use the transitional facility to help their transition back into society.
"The emotional part for me," Goss said, "is that someone came in and decided they would run the program in an old prison, where they could do it cheaper."
Goss said the Screven facility is the only one of its kind in the state.
"You asked for a bid on a transition facility," he said, "and we gave you one. And we have a proven record for 10 years of doing it better than anyone else."
The bid is currently under appeal and it is still very early in the legal proceedings, McMullen said.
"What we're working on for AMI," he said, "is a three-part strategy."
First is the legal or technical piece of the puzzle, he said. Second is the effort to make key officials aware of the potential impact to the community if the program were lost. And third is the grass roots effort, where citizens must get involved to show the governor that the community is behind the program.
"AMI has legal teams working with attorneys to show why our score should have been higher than theirs," said McMullen, referring to the Telfair County facility that was awarded the program.
Since the legal process could progress at any time, McMullen said time is of the essence in getting letters to the governor with three simple messages: that you love the kids, you love the program, and you want it to remain in your community.
"If we can generate enough of that kind of volume, coupled with the other two strategies," he said, "we believe we will have the opportunity to get the proposal thrown out, rebid, and have another bite at the apple."
While the Screven facility stands to lose about 150 employees if the program closes, an additional fear among community members is the move of about 150 students from their current training in a transitional facility into the former prison facility in Telfair.
AMI Kids is the highest ranked of all Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, he said, and has received nothing but praise from t.
"I don't know who the bad guy is here," Goss said.
McMullen agreed there is no one to vilify or to point fingers.
While Rep. Jon Burns and Sen. Jesse Stone were present to provide support and facilitate the meeting, they said the current legal proceedings are such that they must defer to the legal parties and representatives and can no longer intervene.
"AMI is a unique facility," Stone said, "and I don't think the people in Atlanta fully realize that."
McMullen, along with Stone and Burns, stressed the importance of speaking a collective voice to Gov. Nathan Deal, through letters and petitions.
"We have to let the governor know AMI's importance to the community," Stone said, "and to the children being served."
While Sylvania's Mayor Margaret Evans already collected a number of letters Monday, to be hand delivered in Atlanta, it is not too late to make a difference for the program, McMullen said. He encouraged letters from individuals, city and county officials, community boards, and church groups.
"The more the merrier," he said.
Letters with a positive message will be well received, said McMullen.
"All I really want," Goss said, "is the governor or someone to say ‘let's throw out the old bid, let's talk about what we really want,' and then to have a fair shot at it."
To participate in saving this program, address letters to:
The Honorable Nathan Deal,
Office of the Governor
203 State Capitol
Atlanta, GA 30334.
For information concerning talking points for a letter, Goss said to contact Julie Cannon at (912) 687-5217.