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Prison funding on shaky ground

Department of Corrections is prepared to close six existing prisons in light of the state's $720 million shortfall
News Editor
   With Oregon facing a $720 million shortfall, legislators in Salem will soon enter a special session Dec. 10 to mandate widespread spending cuts to state agencies.
   Here in Jefferson County, the proposed Madras-area prison will not be immune from the chopping block.
   The Department of Corrections is scheduled to break ground at its prison site three miles east of Madras off Ashwood Road in January of 2003. But here's the catch: If it were built today, there would be no money to operate it.
   "Everything is on the table right now," said State Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Tumalo, who is co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. "But it's too early to tell what will happen."
   That means it's also too early for Jefferson County residents to panic over losing the prison, Westlund said, which is expected to create up to 500 local jobs and bring major growth to the Madras area.
   To date, funding for construction of the 200-acre facility on 453-acres of land owned by the Department of Corrections has been through the sale of Certificates of Participation, which is similar to bonds. That will not change despite the state's current economic crisis, but future funding is sketchy.
   Like other state agencies, funding for the Department of Corrections is authorized through the state's biennial budget process. Each biennium, the Legislature reviews the DOC's long-range construction schedule as part of the budget process.
   Phase 1 of the prison's construction is scheduled to be completed in July of 2004 and begin operating as a 400-bed minimum security facility.
   That means the prison's operating budget is not part of the current 2001-03 biennial budget, but the DOC has already been asked by Gov. John Kitzhaber to submit a plan that identifies cuts totaling 10 percent of its General Fund budget, which equates to $86 million in possible reductions.
   The Department of Corrections budget reduction plan includes a delay in opening two housing units at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility near Wilsonville, payment of debt service from prison construction savings, postponement of hirings, food cost reductions and other cuts. But that reaches only 7.6 percent of the total 10 percent required in reductions.
   "Beyond the 7.6 percent level, we had no choice but to recommend that most of our minimum custody prisons be closed," said Corrections Director Dave Cook.
   If directed by the Legislature to reach the 10 percent reduction target, the DOC will have to close, in order, the following facilities:
   - The 176-bed Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem.
   - The 130-bed Mill Creek Correctional Facility in Salem.
   - The 390-bed Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem.
   - The 186-bed Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City.
   - The 250-bed Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend.
   - The 150-bed South Fork Forest Camp in Tillamook.
   These possible closures beg important questions: How will the Madras facility be funded? Or how can the Department of Corrections build more prisons if it doesn't get the money to operate the ones it already has?
   They're questions that prove difficult to answer.
   "I haven't been given any shutdown orders or told to look for another job," said Becky Lu Hummer, DOC's Jefferson County Community Development Coordinator. "We're still moving forward according to our existing schedule. But we don't have any way of anticipating what will come of the special session."
   Said Rep. Westlund: "It's a fair question and an issue of great concern for the community, I know, but it's really still too early to tell."
   Pressed whether he thought the Madras prison could be eliminated, Westlund responded, "I don't think so."
   Herein also lies a paradox: With passage of Measure 11 in 1994 Oregon voters approved a minimum sentencing law that has led to a swell in prison populations that has required the construction of the Madras facility and five others like it.
   "Unless the constitution is changed, the demand for not only the Madras prison but all the others on the drawing board will continue," Westlund said.
   If there isn't a drastic policy shift, prisons must continue to be built to meet the demands of growing inmate numbers.
   But with the possible elimination of 1,282 beds if the six minimum-security facilities have to be closed, such a policy shift cannot be ruled out. Oregon is constitutionally required to balance its budget and cannot spend more money than it receives.
   "Speaking as a tax payer, it does sound really odd," Hummer said. "But the prison business is not an option. We can't tell people we're going to house inmates only half-time. The voters have indicated they want to be tougher on crime so there would have to be some reconciliation with public policy.
   "That's why the construction schedule has not been shifted at this time. But that doesn't mean it's not going to."
   The elimination or major postponement of the Madras prison could have dire consequences to Jefferson County. 509-J School District officials used the prison's pending arrival to lobby for their recently passed $15.8 million school bond. The Madras Planning Commission and City Council are also moving forward with major planning updates to the city's Transportation System Plan and preparing to expand the Urban Growth Boundary by 280 acres for future residential areas. These updates are all in anticipation of a population expected to reach 11,776 by 2018 -- a considerable increase that is directly linked to the prison.
   The annual payroll for the proposed prison's staff is estimated between $3-6 million for the minimum security facility, and could reach up to $22 million when fully upgraded by June of 2006.
   Hummer said the DOC has hired an architecture firm, a construction management firm and moved ahead with negotiations with service providers because funding for construction of the facility is secure.
   And since the fate of the prison's funding doesn't necessarily have to be answered until budget talks begin on the 2003-05 biennium, the state's economic climate could change in the meantime.
   If the DOC has to turn to its proposal to close the six minimum security prisons, the department would provide money to counties for the supervision of inmates who are released early, but that is a direction officials do not want to take.
   "We clearly do not want to reach this level of reduction," Cook said. "We will squeeze every nickel before we compromise the integrity of our prison system."