Private prison plan on assembly agenda

Weighing the pros of cons

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2000

The public is being invited to comment Tuesday evening on the possible construction of a privately run, 1,000-bed, minimum-security prison being considered by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

The assembly is considering creating a proposal to submit to the state's administration before the Legislature convenes in January. At the assembly's Nov. 21 meeting, Borough Mayor Dale Bagley introduced an ordinance that, if passed, will open the door to soliciting "competitive bids or proposals for the lease or purchase of land, the design, construction and operation of an 800- to 1,000-bed prison facility."

The agreement would only be effective after the borough enters into necessary agreements with the state of Alaska and after the funding source, expected to be revenue bonds, is given assembly approval.

The ordinance also permits the mayor, with the assembly's approval, to negotiate an agreement with the state for operation of the facility.

The possible failure of a similar project at Ft. Greeley originally caught the attention of the Kenai Natives Association. KNA developed a proposal to construct a prison on KNA-owned land neighboring Wildwood Correctional Facility.

But KNA's Mike Slezak said that in meetings with the Department of Corrections, the Native group was told that the state could only do a year-by-year agreement with the organization. The state would, however, consider working on a government-to-government basis with the borough, using the state's coffers to back municipal revenue bonds needed to finance the project.

Passage of the ordinance being addressed Tuesday night would put KNA in a field with at least three other corrections-related entities interested in bidding if the borough decides to move in that direction.

"There's been a tone that I'm getting concerned about," said assembly member Bill Popp. "And that is that (the prison is) a done deal with KNA. It's not. They have to go through the competitive bid process."

Popp said Tuesday's meeting does not decide where the prison goes.

"What Tuesday's vote does is give authority to move ahead. We still have issues of getting it redirected in the Legislature, the public process of who will build and operate the prison for the borough, the negotiation and public process to approve the agreement with the state of Alaska Department of Corrections and the final approval of issuance of bonds.

"It would be my guess that we have eight to 10 months of the public process at local and state level to go through before this project can be called a reality."

Former Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has volunteered to lend his hand in support of the borough. He said he anticipates his role will be to "troubleshoot," dealing with issues as they come up, helping resolve them and facilitate communication between all parties.

"I've been in contact with the Department of Corrections and met with Commissioner (Margaret) Pugh by myself and with Mayor Bagley and with folks from KNA who would like to be the ones to build the project," Navarre said. "I also considered working on it in a paid position for one of the private companies -- KNA or one of the corrections folks -- but I've declined to do so. Instead I'll be working on it as a Kenai Peninsula Borough business person.

"It holds some promise for economic development," Navarre said.

"It's a $60- to $80-million construction project with 300 jobs for the local economy. I think that's significant."

Navarre said the possible death of the Ft. Greeley project opens a window of opportunity for the peninsula.

"I think the commissioner's office agrees that if someone else steps up with a viable project that's acceptable to Corrections and the numbers work, that the Legislature will accept it also," Navarre said. "There's no guarantee that the project will happen here, but it's an opportunity, and I think KNA and the borough are pursuing it, as they should be."

However, Cleeta Barger, of Delta Junction, said the Ft. Greeley project is far from over. Opposition by members of that community have slowed down the process, but, according to Barger, no one has dropped the flag on the proposal to develop a prison at nearby Ft. Greeley.

"I sincerely believe that it can still happen," Barger said on Friday.

Mayor Bagley said he has received "basically no negative feedback" on the proposed prison. However, at Wednesday's Kenai City Council meeting, after hearing testimony both for and against the project, the council decided to postpone throwing its support behind the idea.

Tuesday's agenda begins with committee meetings at 10 a.m. at the borough building on Binkley Street in Soldotna. The assembly meets at 7 p.m.

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