Prison issues in spotlight Tuesday

Resolutions are topic of assembly meeting

Posted: Monday, March 12, 2001

If the public wants the Kenai Peninsula Borough's nine-member assembly to hear their voice, Tuesday's meeting offers plenty of opportunity.

Taking center stage with four separate resolutions is the proposed 800- to 1,000-bed medium security private prison being considered for construction and operation on the Kenai Peninsula. All four prison-related resolutions are on the assembly's consent agenda, which means they automatically will be introduced by the panel at the opening of the meeting unless specifically removed. A public hearing and formal approval will come at a later date.

Paul Fischer, assembly member from Kasilof, will introduce a resolution asking for voter approval on the issuance of revenue bonds anticipated to total between $80 million to $100 million to fund the project.

"I am very concerned that the borough is proceeding with the prison project, which is significantly larger than any other project attempted by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, without providing the voters an opportunity to vote on it," Fischer wrote in a memo to Assembly President Tim Navarre and the other seven assembly members.

Fischer said his concerns include the speed with which the project is moving forward.

"On (Feb. 20) we found out from the (evaluation) group of five that we had two days to make a decision, to really search (the bids) out like we should have," Fischer said.

The assembly held a special meeting Feb. 23 to hear in executive session presentations by two out of four teams bidding on the project. At the end of the day, the assembly stated its intent to negotiate a contract with the team headed by Cornell Companies Inc.

"I think we should have delayed (the decision) a week or so, so that the assembly had a chance to check it out for our own. We didn't get involved in the evaluation committee process at all."

Fischer said he also is concerned about issues of liability.

"We know nothing about prisons," Fischer said of the borough's experience in the area of corrections. "We're relying on an expert, but if things don't go right, that expert will be gone."

Fischer, a former Alaska legislator who was in office during the planning of Seward's Spring Creek Correctional Facility, also said that as a second class borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough lacks correction powers.

"I can actually say I've lost sleep over this," Fischer said.

Two more assembly members, Bill Popp of Kenai and Ron Long of Seward, will introduce a resolution designating property located near Wildwood Correctional Complex as the site for the new prison. The legislation would open the door for Borough Mayor Dale Bagley to obtain the land from owners Kenai Natives Association either through purchase or a long-term lease. Final approval would still rest in the assembly's hands.

"The resolution is intended to begin the public process for site selection," Popp said.

Hearings would take place Tuesday, March 27 and April 17, as well as a planning commission hearing on April 9.

"Coincidentally, it is my expectation that there will be a resolution introduced by a council member from city of Kenai to support this location," Popp said. "If there are issues that arise through the many public hearings we will hold, then it is my intention to postpone final hearing until a date more appropriate."

Two other prison-related resolutions, authored by Bagley, also are on the assembly's Tuesday agenda.

One of the resolutions expresses intent to issue bonds to finance the prison project.

"It is anticipated that debt service on the bonds will be paid from revenue derived through a contract with the Alaska Department of Corrections," according to accompanying documentation from Jeff Sinz, the borough's finance director. "If the project is not ultimately approved and bonds are not issued to pay for capital costs associated with the project, then the costs will be treated as an operating expenditure of the borough's general fund."

The second resolution from borough administration approves the agreement with Cornell Companies Inc. for the planning and promotion of the prison project. Although that agreement has yet to be finalized, the resolution puts "the public and the assembly on notice that we anticipate a completed contract on or before March 13, 2001," Sinz wrote.

Assembly committee meetings begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Administration Building, 144 N. Binkley St. in Soldotna. The evening's assembly meeting begins at 7.

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