Private prison proponents put pressure on Kenai council

Work session set for Wednesday

Posted: Monday, September 10, 2001

Proponents of the proposed private prison plan gave the Kenai City Council the full-court press Wednesday night. The pressure to support the prison, which would most likely be built on Kenai's doorstep, was applied for an hour and a half at the council's regular meeting by members of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Economic Development, known as CCFRED, and others.

A special work session scheduled for this Wednesday night came out of the lobbying efforts. It will be held at 7 p.m. in the city council chambers at Kenai City Hall. As a result, the city's Planning and Zoning Commission's regular meeting will be held at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center at 7 p.m.

"The city of Kenai has always taken the lead in economic development," said former Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor and state senator Don Gilman, speaking for CCFRED.

It was a message he repeated several times during his speech.

Gilman hearkened back to the days when Wildwood Air Force Station closed and how the city pushed for a prison then.

"People were leaving the area in droves 30 years ago," he said of the economic downturn of the day. "The city scrambled to fill the void, and in the middle of all that, Wildwood closed. It put people in a panic."

He described how the city helped Kenai Natives Association, which acquired the land, to develop a prison on the site. They were successful, and the Wildwood Correctional and Pretrial facilities were built. It was, and still is, a state-operated prison. The proposed prison, would be privately operated by a for-profit corporation, Cornell Corrections.

"The city took the lead on that in the early '70s," Gilman said. "We had the same discussions then as now, 'What would happen to Kenai if we put a prison in?' I personally don't think there has been a negative effect on the community."

"I guarantee you there will be impacts associated with this prison. I know that and anyone around here knows there will be impacts," Kenai Mayor John Williams said.

"There will be impacts," Gilman responded. "A half-billion dollars (in payroll) over 25 years."

"I've always said there are many ways to do economic development," Williams countered.

A major concern for the city is the affect a 1,000-bed prison would have on the city's waste water system. Despite being just outside city limits, Wildwood currently is hooked up to the city's infrastructure, but the system's ability to handle 1,000 more beds is dubious.

Williams criticized the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly for moving too fast on the issue, saying a study needed to be done and answers needed to be brought forth.

"My concern with a vote yes now, is we'll never get another chance to have a say," Williams said. "We have no answers whatsoever. We were told there would be a socioeconomic study done, and now we're told it would be after the vote."

Gilman said answers about feasibility and cost cannot be given.

"Those answers are not ready yet. There has been no study yet, and it will never be done if people vote no," Gilman said.

The vote Gilman referred to is Proposi-tion One, which, if passed, will allow the borough to go ahead with pursuing the prison. A no vote would kill the idea for two years, which could mean another community outside the borough could seek the prison. The question will be on the Oct. 2 election ballot, boroughwide.

Tim Navarre, assembly president and one of Kenai's two representatives on the assembly, said the vote only came about because of the threat of a citizens' petition to hold one.

The petition by Peninsula Citizens Against Private Prisons, which gathered the needed signatures to be put on the ballot, was made null and void by the assembly's own resolution, which was substantially the same.

"I have said we don't need a vote," Navarre said. "We're accused of going too fast, but when we try to take our time, we're accused of not allowing citizen input."

His speech getting faster and louder as he continued, Navarre said the assembly would work out the pluses and minuses.

"The borough will protect the citizens of the borough and the city of Kenai," Navarre said. "Sometimes people have to put their faith in the people they elect.

"I hope the council will support us. The assembly is cautious, but we don't want this to wind up somewhere else."

Williams, also getting agitated, said before Wildwood was constructed, the city's infrastructure was pushed to the breaking point, the city was $800,000 in debt and the combined city and borough property tax rate was 21 mills, most of that the city's.

"We were able to cope only by choking ourselves to death," he said. "I hope we never have to go back."

The city now has close to $30 million in the bank and has a property tax rate of 3.5 mills.

The mayor also questioned the future of Wildwood as a medium security prison in the face of a 800- to 1,000-bed medium security prison next door. He also criticized the borough for never including the city in meetings with state Department of Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh.

"There have been several meetings (scheduled) with Ms. Pugh that have never happened," Williams said. "We have been left in the dark."

Navarre promised the city would be included in the next meeting, perhaps this week, and perhaps at Wednesday night's special work session.

"The city has always taken the lead, and I'm sure if you called Margaret Pugh, she'll come and meet with you without the blessing of the borough," Navarre said.

Williams pointed out, under the repeated message that the city has historically taken the lead in economic development, that it has never done so without research.

"The city has never moved ahead with a major decision before it gets the facts," he said. "With all fairness to the developers, it would be nice to know some answers."

Some council members sought answers to their questions from Gilman and Navarre. Jim Bookey asked what would happen to a new prison if Cornell couldn't do a good enough job.

"(The state) will get someone else to run it. The state has that responsibility," Gilman said. "These people out here (Cornell) do not stand alone. They are hired help."

Bookey also asked what happens if the boroughwide vote is in favor of the prison and the city is against it.

Gilman said he didn't know, but it was not out of the question that the prison could have its own water and sewer system.

Council member Duane Bannock asked Gilman what the chances are that the state Legislature would change its mind and allow a publicly-run prison to be built, as opposed to the privately-run one they have sanctioned.

Gilman said if an agreement to build the prison is signed before the November 2002 election, it will be honored.

"If it isn't, then the next Legislature could change the whole thing," he said.

Council member Joe Moore wanted to know what the time frame was for returning Alaska prisoners from a private prison in Arizona.

Gilman turned to said his son and KNA attorney, Blaine Gilman. The younger Gilman said 2004 is the target date for returning them, though it was not "set in stone."

Council member Linda Swarner asked if there has been any study on what affect a private prison could have on area nonprofit organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. With about 200 jobs forecast for the prison and the people who come to be near incarcerated loved ones, it has been speculated the population increase could be substantial.

Don Gilman said there has not been a study. He repeated there never will be a study if voters say no.

Swarner asked if citizens will get another chance to vote on the private prison if the vote in October is yes.

Gilman said he didn't know.

"But I suspect the answer is no," he said.

Navarre continued to pressure the city into taking a position, saying members of the assembly from other areas want to hear where the city is leaning.

"The Homer assemblyman said it would be nice if the city of Kenai told us where it stands," he said. "Homer doesn't want to roll over Kenai.

"A decision needs to be made," Navarre continued. "I look forward to a yes vote and working with the city to make a project we can all be proud of."

"Never in 15 years as mayor have I ever been lobbied as hard as I have from both sides of this issue," Williams said.

He directed City Manager Linda Snow to work with the borough to find some answers to bring before the council Wednesday night.

"We can give you our professional assessments, but we won't have all the answers," Snow said.

The meeting is only a work session, and no vote will be taken. However, at the Sept. 19 regular Kenai City Council meeting, a resolution could be in the offing. A resolution supporting the prison some months ago, proposed by Bannock, died for lack of a second.

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