Port of Walla Walla exec: Hundreds of jobs at stake

The penitentiary already has shouldered a hefty share of job cuts in the state system.

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WALLA WALLA -- The potential of losing hundreds of jobs if the main institution is closed at Washington State Penitentiary drew a swift reaction from local officials Tuesday.

According to Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz, shutting down the facility could mean the loss of 300-plus jobs and a payroll of $20 million out of the Walla Walla Valley economy. This would be on top of cuts made earlier at the facility.

"The Washington State Penitentiary has already taken more than 40 percent of the 279 job cuts the Department of Corrections made during the last biennium," he said. "Penitentiary jobs make up 5.7 percent of our county's wages. While I believe it's important to run our correctional system efficiently, it's also important to be equitable when making these decisions."

"The Port is very frustrated that recommendations are being made by the consultant before the economic impacts to a community are fully known. With 300 family wage jobs at stake, the employees at the Washington State Penitentiary deserve better," he said.

According to information collected by the Port, as of this year the prison is the county's second-largest employer with 1,206 full-time employees and 39 part-time workers.

State Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said "the options laid out in today's report are not the only ones we should be considering. There's another way to approach this problem that could benefit our state budget and our local economies."

In a release, Hewitt said that while there is excess prison capacity now, "we know that over the long run we will need more beds. Why not rent those temporary surplus beds to other states to house their inmates? We'd generate revenue and be ready with the facility once we need it, rather than having to ramp it up again or build new facilities.

"That would also help us solve the 'yo-yo' problem we seem to have with our prisons. Just a few years ago we built new facilities based on projections that we would need them. Now we are talking about closing them. There's a better way to approach this problem, and I encourage the governor and the Legislature to consider it."

Both Hewitt and Kuntz said more attention should be paid in the report to the Legislature's direction that local economic impacts be part of considering any closures.

"The closure of this facility would have a tremendous impact on Walla Walla's economy. We have one of the slowest job growth rates in our state, and a relatively small job base," Hewitt said.

"These jobs would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace, especially when compared to other communities. If the final report holds true to the Legislature's intentions, it will consider the negative impact on our community when making its recommendations," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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