$n$ Task force stares down prison cuts

The group worked Thursday to brainstorm ways to deal with the potential loss of 170-plus jobs at the penitentiary.

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WALLA WALLA -- How to delay or defray looming job cuts at Washington State Penitentiary took center stage Thursday at the latest meeting of a local task force.

Port of Walla Walla officials, corrections officers, city of Walla Walla leaders and others gathered to brainstorm how to cope with the possible loss of more than 170 jobs at the prison as the state prepares for another massive revenue shortfall.

The job losses are expected to be part of efforts by state officials to deal with a $1.4 billion decrease in projected tax revenue collecting in the next two years. The reductions were included in multiple budget proposals presented last week by state Department of Corrections Secretary Bernard Warner to the Office of Financial Management.

At Thursday's meeting of the Washington State Penitentiary Community Taskforce, members agreed cuts will come and Walla Walla seems to be in the crosshairs. However, Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said, "is there a way to spread these cuts out so no one community has to bear the pain?"

Two outcomes of the meeting were to have the Port draft a letter to Warner and Gov. Chris Gregoire asking them to postpone implementation of downsizing at the penitentiary until the Legislature can look at the issue. The letter is to be signed by the local legislative delegation, Sen. Mike Hewitt and Reps. Terry Nealey and Maureen Walsh.

The second was to have penitentiary workers and others brainstorm how to make even more cuts or find efficiencies to offer the corrections department. "How can we do our fair share short of taking 173 (job) cuts?" Kuntz said.

Nealey, who was at the meeting, agreed with the concerns that Department of Corrections leadership seems to be preparing to proceed administratively without waiting for input from legislators, who won't come together until Nov. 28.

"I think you're right, that's the way they're headed," he said. "Obviously there are discussions going on, but the Legislature isn't in session."

The group also discussed how to argue that the penitentiary should not be singled out to take the brunt of the job reductions. Other institutions, such as the Monroe Correctional Complex, are apparently "getting a pass," Kuntz said.

However, Dick Morgan, who was the penitentiary superintendent for many years and then served as director of prisons before his retirement in 2010, pointed out that "Monroe has two big bats to swing" when it comes to budget cuts.

The first is its proximity to major hospitals, such as Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, which is why it is the designated facility for housing inmates with major injuries and health issues. The second is "inmates and their families are scared to death of Walla Walla and they like Monroe."

Morgan said the perception is that Monroe has a "fairly active" constituency of inmates and families who, due to their location, are in a better position to register protests with the governor and legislators. "If you whack them, you'll hear it in Walla Walla," he said.

As the meeting drew to a close, Port Commissioner Mike Fredrickson said that if the governor and DOC agree to hold off on cutbacks until the Legislature meets, local leaders need to be ready to go to Olympia and press their case in person.

"If that happens, we need to get a group together and pound the streets," he said.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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