Positive news seen for prison in budget bills

Senate and House bills hold capital spending for new construction at the penitentiary, which could offset closure of the main institution.

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Budget bills now making their way through the state Legislature may hold some hopeful news for the Washington State Penitentiary.

In an e-mail sent to members of a community task force, Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz said both the House and Senate Capital Budgets have $6.8 million for the penitentiary. The funds would pay for design work for a new medium security unit, close-custody unit and expansion of the West Complex kitchen facilities.

The new construction is intended to offset closure of the prison's old main institution, a move has been identified as among measures needed to eliminate 1,580 beds in the state's prison system.

Although Kuntz warned that the community should "remain guarded until the state budget gets adopted," he said the news was "very positive."

The allocation "is key to implementing the governor's savings within the (Department of Corrections) budget," he said. "It positions the penitentiary for stability and perhaps some growth as the old main institution is phased out for more cost-effective units."

Legislators are looking at cuts in the correction department's budget to save approximately $12 million in operating costs over the 2009-2011 biennium.

Closure of the main institution was among moves identified in a study completed last fall for the Office of Financial Management. A key provision in the feasibility's study's final draft is that $41 million in capital funds be found to build a new medium security unit at the prison.

While officials have said that isn't likely to happen, the Walla Walla Valley Community Task Force has requested the Legislature approve $6.8 million to provide design money for the new construction.

To press the county's case, the Port has hired Dave Mastin, a former legislator and local attorney, to act as a lobbyist during this legislative session.

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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