Money is too tight for state to OK prison impact funds

Yes, Franklin County should be compensated but that will have to wait until the economy turns around.

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The rapid expansion of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell has taken a financial toll on Franklin County because of escalating criminal justice costs.

The prison opened in 1992 as a 600-bed minimum security facility. Today the expanded prison holds 2,000 minimum- and medium-security inmates. Coyote Ridge is expected to house 2,600 inmates by the end of the year.

Two years ago a joint study by Franklin County and the city of Connell determined the one-time cost of the expansion was $2.5 million, including staff and equipment for departments dealing with criminal justice. That doesn't include added costs to schools and hospitals.

Franklin County officials expected the state to pay impact funds to local governments to help offset the rising expenses as has been done in the past. Local governments in Walla Walla County, for example, have received impact funds from the state.

But the Legislature has balked at paying up because of the current fiscal crisis.

County Prosecutor Steve Lowe compared the rapid expansion to adding another city. He believes it's important for the state, not just county taxpayers, to share these costs.

"The reality is Franklin County has gotten nothing," Lowe said.

We in Walla Walla, living in a prison community, certainly understand the irritation and frustration.

We agree there should be funds, but Connell and county officials should recognize that the jobs and salaries from the prison boost the local economy. The state is simply not in a financial position to fork over $2 million to $3 million in impact funds.

Gov. Chris Gregoire recently warned state agencies they could face an across-the-board cut of 3 percent to 7 percent because tax revenue projections are falling short of expectations.

And that's on top of cuts already made. State employees must now take off 10 days without pay so that folks aren't put out of work permanently. The Department of Corrections has been a frequent target when layoffs are discussed.

It's critical, as a matter of public safety, to make sure all state corrections facilities are properly staffed. We've argued against proposed cuts at the Washington State Penitentiary here for that reason.

Layoffs at Coyote Ridge would also be a mistake given the increase in the inmate population at the facility.

But if money was siphoned for use as impact funds it's likely, if not certain, deeper cuts would be made at the Department of Corrections. That would hurt Walla Walla, Connell and the entire state.

At some point -- after the economy turns around -- Franklin County and Connell should be at the head of the line for impact money. Right now, the state can't afford to compensate local governments for the expansion of Coyote Ridge.

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