From the sidelines, Kenai Peninsula residents watched with interest as the Alaska Senate focused on legislation that would authorize the Department of Corrections to enter into an agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough for creation of the state's first private prison.
The legislation, introduced by freshman Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, on Feb. 26, would direct Corrections to lease facilities for the confinement and care of prisoners within the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The facilities are described as a medium-security prison capable of housing 800 to 1,000 inmates.
"We still have a long way to go," said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Bill Popp, of Kenai. "We have a feasibility study to get through first and we'll be discussing the parameters of that study at the assembly's May 15 meeting."
Popp said a copy of the draft study has already been prepared by borough administration.
"I would like the study to explore the issues of impacts on local infrastructure such as roads, sewer and water, schools and social services," Popp said.
He viewed the failure of an amendment offered on the Senate floor by Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, on Tuesday as a sign that "the Senate is satisfied with the process the borough went through to identify our contractor."
In February, the borough used a process referred to as a "request for qualification" to select a team headed by Cornell Companies Inc. to partner with the borough on phase one, planning and promotion of the project. The contract between the borough and Cornell states that "it is also the Borough's and Cornell's intent to negotiate in good faith the Phase Two contracts."
Torgerson's amendment sought to require a competitive bid process to identify the contractor selected for that phase, the construction and operation of the prison. Failure of that amendment was one less hurdle in the borough's contractual agreement with Cornell to reimburse the contractor up to $100,000 if the Legislature, Corrections or the governor required subsequent competitive bidding.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley was in Juneau on Wednesday to help ensure smooth sailing for the legislation.
"There's still a feasibility study to be done," said Bagley when asked if the borough was still exploring the possibility of the prison project or had already committed to it. "Some assembly members may want to take this to a vote of the people once everything is known. Or they may not. I don't know. We still have a long ways to go."
However, Torgerson said the assembly's 8-to-1 vote to approve the contract with Cornell said otherwise.
"This is the largest project the state's ever done on a sole-source contract," Torgerson said. "The borough's part of that history."
"It's just not a good business deal," Torgerson said of a sole-source arrangement. "It might be for the operators, but it's not a good precedent to set for the state. We don't have any numbers, and I'm a number-crunching fool."
Assembly member Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, who cast the only vote opposing the borough's contract with Cornell, said, "I hear that we've got a long way to go, but I've urged caution, scrutiny and deliberation from the beginning. I think we're farther down the road than I'd like to be at this point."
Sprague said he would view the project more favorably "if it were public instead of private. That would lessen a lot of my concerns."
"But I do have concerns that there are people in the borough that don't want another prison in the area," he said. "And there are people that are concerned that the borough doesn't need to be in the middle of any kind of government-to-private relationship with the prison. Those are the three large issues that I still have concerns about."
Sprague said there is also the concern that people in the borough would like to vote on the issue.
"That is coming more to the forefront," he said.
Bagley said the biggest question is "what is the liability to the borough. I think that's what other assembly members are waiting on. It's kind of hard to put something to a (public) vote when you don't know what our liabilities are and what this is going to mean to the borough."
James Price, of Nikiski, who testified several times before the assembly concerning his opposition to the project, is taking steps to ensure the public's voice is heard.
"I'm working with a broad group of local citizens that believe that this prison project is wrong for various reasons," Price said. "I strongly believe that we're on the right side of this issue, and we are anxious to put this public-private prison scheme to a vote of the people. We believe that this project will be voted down by the people of the Kenai Peninsula Borough through the ballot initiative process."
His plan is get a referendum statement on the October ballot that would allow voters "to prohibit a prison or correctional institution operated by a private for-profit operator."
"I look forward to being a small part of the initiative process, which will bring this important issue before a vote of the people," Price said.
Mako Haggerty also has made his opposition to the private prison project known to the assembly. The Homer resident also traveled to Juneau to meet with peninsula legislators on the subject.
"It seems to be extremely irresponsible that it'll go to a sole source," Haggerty said. "Not to mention the fact that the private-versus-public debate has not really been settled in this state and we're charging forward into the great unknown at great expense."
"The whole problem with contracting out government services is that the public loses," he said. "There's no accountability."
Haggerty said the speed with which the project has moved through the borough and the Legislature eliminated time to evaluate the impacts of the project.
On Wednesday, in an Anchor-age newspaper column, former Alaska Attorney General John Havelock urged peninsula residents to slow the project down. His concerns included the "flagrant example of the success of eleventh-hour power lobbying" accused both the Legis-lature and the administration of lacking backbone to stand up to lobbyists. And he asked whether privatization was the best solution to the state's lack of prison space.
"(Havelock) hit it," Haggerty said. "Everyone's afraid to talk philosophy on this subject. Repub-licans talk money. Democrats talk money. No one's talking about the philosophical ramification of private prisons. It's a debate that's sorely needed in the public dialogue."
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