Private prison information sought

Same subject, different route

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2001

The future of Alaska's first private prison was the cause of two separate actions taken this week by the Kenai Peninsula Borough administration and a group called "Citizens for a Private Prison Free Peninsula."

The routes are different, but the reasons are the same: gathering information to ultimately decide if an 800- to 1,000-bed medium-security facility will be constructed and operated on the Kenai Peninsula.

On Monday, the borough administration distributed requests for proposals from firms capable of conducting a project feasibility study.

"The RFP was distributed to seven different vendors directly and, in addition, will appear in classified ads in the Anchorage Daily News and the Peninsula Clarion three times each, including Sunday," said Jeff Sinz, borough finance director.

Sinz said vendors were identified through discussions with municipalities that have conducted similar studies and discussions with the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research. The RFP also will be listed on Integrated Marketing Systems, an Internet-based public plans room.

Responses are due July 9 and will be evaluated between July 10 and July 27, by a committee of individuals representing the borough and appointed by Borough Mayor Dale Bagley.

"The basic schedule is that written proposals will be evaluated by July 18 and that if the borough decides to conduct oral presentations, those will take place on July 26 and 27," Sinz said. "We expect there will be a notice of intent to award that would go out on July 30 and that the borough assembly would be asked to approve the award on August 7."

According to the RFP, the study should:

n Test the prison's benefits for the borough;

n Identify and quantify the project's positive and negative social and economic impacts; and

n Assess the financial feasibility of the prison.

In April, the borough signed a contract with Cornell Companies Inc. for planning and promoting the prison. The original response to the borough's request for qualification identified Corrections Group North, a limited liability corporation that teamed Cornell Corrections of Alaska with Weimar Investments, as the team lead. However, that corporate structure raised concerns.

"On this important a project, we wanted to contract with an entity that was accessible in the event that the firm we contracted with failed to deliver what they were contractually committed to deliver," Sinz said. "The LLC structure proposed by Corrections Group North didn't give us the degree of comfort we were looking for."

After that concern was communicated, Corrections Group North was deleted from the response and Cornell Companies Inc. became the prime contractor. Cornell's team includes architectural firm Livingston Slone Inc., Kenai Natives Association, Neeser Construction and VECO Construction, and Cornell lobbyists Joe Hayes and Kent Dawson.

"They are involved in the project through their relationship with Cornell, who has its contract with us," said Sinz of the team members. "The contract identifies those entities as being part of the team. The contract also requires that if there are changes in that structure, that they have to get our approval."

Also required in the contract is completion of a feasibility study by an independent third party prior to negotiating and entering into contracts for the design, construction and operation of the facility.

On Tuesday, Citizens for a Private Prison Free Peninsula also took a step toward deciding if the private prison is in the borough's best interests. Borough Clerk Linda Murphy had certified petition packets available for 20 sponsors who want the October ballot to ask peninsula voters "to prohibit the private for-profit operation of a prison or correctional institution within the Kenai Peninsula Borough."

According to Murphy, borough code gives 90 days to collect signatures of 1,008 registered voters, 15 percent of the votes cast during the last regular election. However, sponsors are in a race against the clock.

"In order to ensure that it's on the October ballot, I have to have the petition certified by August 17th," Murphy said.

With a 10-day window to verify signatures, Murphy needs the signed petitions no later than Aug. 7.

To expedite the verification process:

n Individuals signing the petition must use the same name listed on voter registration rolls;

n The printed name of the signer must be legible; and

n A physical address must be included, without which Murphy cannot verify the signature.

"That's state law," Murphy said.

James Price, of Nikiski, and Mako Haggerty, of Homer, are the petition's prime sponsors.

"The ballot initiative petition packages are done," wrote Price in a June 12 early morning e-mail reminder that urged sponsors to pick the packets up personally or call Murphy to request that the packet be mailed.

Estimating support, Haggerty said, "I've had people come up and ask where to sign without me even pushing the petition. They've mentioned it to me. I wasn't even advertising. That's a good sign."

John Ossowski, a petition sponsor from Soldotna, said, "I think what's behind the prison is a tremendous amount of money. There's a handful of people that stand to benefit from it, maybe between 2 and 5 percent. The other 95 to 98 percent will have to live with the negative consequences. It doesn't seem to me that people realize this. People need to think the process through."

Bill Popp, who represents Kenai on the borough assembly, said the ballot initiative has "some serious legal problems."

"Whereas I don't think any of the parties involved will challenge it, I think if it was challenged, it would lose in front of the Supreme Court," Popp said. "It circumvents the constitutional process of who's responsible for laying out this kind of legislation and law. I don't think this is an appropriate step for the initiative process. But, unfortunately, there's no case history for dealing with this type of situation."

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