Washington State Penitentiary job cuts in offing

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WALLA WALLA -- Washington State Penitentiary officials are bracing for the elimination of more than 170 jobs in the coming months as the state tries to deal with a $1.4 billion decrease in projected tax revenue collection over the next two years.

The job reduction is included in multiple budget proposals presented late last week to the Office of Financial Management by state Department of Corrections Secretary Bernard Warner. As with other state department heads, Warner was asked by Gov. Chris Gregoire to submit examples of what it would take to cut 5 percent -- $80 million -- and 10 percent -- $160 million -- from his operation's biennial budget. Under both scenarios, the prison's employment would be reduced by 173 jobs, a loss Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz said Tuesday would be felt for several years.

"Those jobs are very difficult to replace," Kuntz told about 60 people gathered at the Walla Walla Regional Airport for an Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting.

Under the proposals the unit known as Seven Wing, which is part of the old main institution would be converted to minimum-security units. Acting penitentiary Superintendent Donald Holbrook said Tuesday the prison has about 900 inmates in medium and close-custody. The transition would give the operation the chance to house 600 to 700 inmates at a lower cost.

About 40 positions have already been reduced through retirements, transfers and attrition, officials said. Holbrook said Tuesday he believes other cuts would be made over the next several months.

Whether 173 is a final number is unclear, as is the breakdown of jobs. In his Sept. 22 budget update, Warner said he continues to have serious concerns about cuts to the corrections system over the last several years that have already included more than $270 million in spending, the closure of three prisons, the elimination of 1,200 positions and removal of more than 12,000 offenders from supervision, among other things.

"I intend to actively express the risks that would be associated with (the) implementation (of the cuts)," Warner wrote. "I do hope we do not need to take such huge cuts at the department. But in reality, we will most likely need to take some."

The reduction from the roughly 1,200-person staff is a blow, considering starting wages for correctional officers are $40,000 plus benefits. The indirect effect of those losses is equally concerning. Kuntz said for every 100 corrections jobs, another 67 exist in the community indirectly -- from school teachers to grocery clerks.

However, Kuntz said he was encouraged that the proposal did not include the entire old main institution, a building officials say is inefficient and costly.

"If they closed down the whole thing that would be 300 jobs," he said.

He lauded the work of a community task force that has strategized and hired a lobbyist on behalf of saving penitentiary jobs.

The efforts likely aided in securing $42 million for two new medium-security units. The amount reflects the largest capital expenditure item in the 2011-2013 budget, Kuntz said. Lydig Construction is expected to be on site Oct. 5 for that project, Holbrook added.

Kuntz said he's disappointed that Walla Walla has a disproportionate amount of job losses compared to the Monroe Correctional Complex. But he acknowledged it may be hard to convince legislators to save the local jobs now that the community has a $42 million construction project at the site.

"I wish this wasn't the news," he said Tuesday.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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