Members disregard letter from 3 peninsula legislators expressing reservations

Assembly approves prison contract

Posted: Sunday, April 08, 2001

Even a letter strongly stating the concerns of three of the Kenai Peninsula's five-member legislative delegation didn't slow down the Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly's move toward construction of the state's first private prison Friday night.

Eight of the nine-member assembly gave their blessing to a contract with Cornell Companies Inc. for the planning and promotion of an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security private prison. Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, was the only opposing vote.

"First of all, let us publicly resolve any questions on our stance on this project -- we support the development of a prison on the Kenai Peninsula," wrote Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, and Reps. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, and Drew Scalzi, R-Homer. "At issue is the process by which it is developed, from the plans and design, to the enabling legislation, to the construction and operation of the development."

Concerns raised in the letter included "a sole source for the entire project, as you proposed initially and as is proposed again in the contract with Cornell Companies Inc. (CCI). We also cannot support public funds for a project that has yet to identify costs. These are reasonable and prudent public policy practices."

According to the letter, the legislators had already communicated to the assembly requests for additional information on the plans and site of the facility, anticipated costs and liability to the borough.

"We urge you to take steps to provide information on the facility and costs of operation of a facility in order to work successfully on adoption of a bill to authorize a facility," the letter ended. "We also urge you to take whatever steps are necessary to authorize, on your own, a competitive bid process for the remainder of the proposed project.

"We will be opposing this legislation until the borough or its contractors can supply us with a complete business plan, outlining through a competitive bid process, how they are going to proceed with the project."

Attached to the letter, which was faxed to the borough at 3:42 p.m. Friday afternoon, was correspondence from Margaret Pugh, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Corrections. In it, Pugh wrote she was unable to address specific questions about the project because the department "does not know what facility design the borough is envisioning."

However, making assumptions based on an 800-bed medium-security facility, Pugh said the state estimates the project would cost between $105 million and $125 million, not including land acquisition costs. In an effort to anticipate a per-prisoner per-day rate, Pugh offered Seward's Spring Creek Correctional Facility's $109 daily rate. Pugh said currently the state is paying $54.57 per prisoner per day for the 800 inmates housed in a medium-security private facility in Arizona.

The letter from Torgerson, Lancaster and Scalzi was not the only opposition raised at Friday night's meeting.

"When you find moose, you usually find wolves nearby," said Ed Martin Sr., of Cooper Landing. Martin said he understood the possible economic benefits the project could bring to the borough but urged the assembly to consider safety factors and whether the project would enhance "our quality of life on the Kenai Peninsula."

Chuck Phillips, of Kenai, asked for more information about the revenue bonds that would initially pay for the project and wondered about the Alaska Department of Corrections involvement.

"Why haven't they been at the meetings?" Phillips asked.

Sprague moved to postpone any decision on the contract until the assembly's April 17 meeting, urging more interaction with the public.

But Borough Mayor Dale Bagley would not consider any reservations raised at the meeting.

"I don't believe we need to wait," he said. "I feel we should go forward."

Sprague's motion to postpone action failed, finding support only from Milli Martin, of Homer, and Ron Long, of Seward.

A motion from Grace Merkes, of Sterling, to amend the contract to include completion of a feasibility study prior to construction of the prison found more support, passing unanimously.

Faced with approval of the amended contract, Sprague said he would vote against it and referenced passage of a resolution by the city of Soldotna earlier in the week that opposed construction of the private prison. He also said he respected the opinion of Torgerson, Lancaster and Scalzi.

"We've heard (the project is moving) one step at a time, but this is a very large step," Sprague said, adding that this was "probably the biggest (step) until we sign on the dotted line."

He did, however, praise the addition of a feasibility study.

"In business, a feasibility study is the first thing you do," Sprague said.

Passing the gavel, president Navarre said he believed everyone was acting in good faith.

"If the state Legislature changes their mind and turns to a public facility, our current project will have to start over," said Navarre, who plans to travel to Juneau to answer questions from legislators about the project.

"We're taking very careful steps," said Navarre, adding that he was concerned with Sprague's position.

Sprague responded by saying he had heard a number of concerns raised across the borough and the state and had his own questions about the project.

"If I'm the only one, so be it," Sprague said.

After the 8-to-1 vote, Soldotna Mayor-Elect David Carey, who served two terms on the borough assembly, urged assembly members to be sure any promises made with other entities involved in the project are put in writing.

"Good faith must be earned," Carey said.

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