By Jordan Cuddemi
Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Windsor — Two top Windsor County Democrats in the Vermont Legislature say a proposal to close Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor is not a “done deal.”
Instead, lawmakers will weigh the pros and cons of closing the facility in the coming weeks, as well as all other possible options to patch a budget gap totaling $113 million.
“The decision to close the Southeast State Correctional Facility is not a done deal. I plan on meeting with all interested parties to discuss the pending decision to close the facility,” Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, said via email. “I do not wish to send more prisoners out of state, and I am very concerned with the possible loss of 60 jobs.”
The $5.5 billion budget proposal, which unanimously passed the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, will hit the House floor today.
Sate Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, said she is encouraging fellow lawmakers to think “very critically” about what the impacts of closing the prison would be — all of which haven’t yet been uncovered.“This is one way for saving some money,” said Sweaney, chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee. “But I don’t think it’s a fait accompli.”
The proposal to close the prison, which has operated with its farm since 1916 and now has about 100 male inmates, is estimated to save about $820,000, according to the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office. Under the proposal, the prison would close in 2017, so the savings wouldn’t be realized immediately, the website VtDigger reported.
If the proposal passes the House, it would then go to state Senate, where it also will face scrutiny. Some state senators from the Upper Valley said it’s too soon to tell if they’d back the plan to close the minimum security prison, which is nestled on about 950 acres off County Road in Windsor, but at least one is fully behind keeping it open.
“I am, at this point, not taking a position on any line item,” said state Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee. “Right now, we are in the middle of a painful balancing act.”
He said he seeks more information about the cause and effect of closing the prison before taking an official stance. The information should include “what the will of the people” in Windsor is, he said.
Not everyone in Windsor considers the prison an asset, he said. “I understand the town to be somewhat divided,” McCormack said. “I would need to hear more from home.”
State Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Ludlow, said she wants to keep the facility open. Nitka — who along with Campbell and McCormack represent Windsor County in the Senate — joined Sweaney and other lawmakers at a meeting at the Windsor facility on Monday to learn about the effect of proposed cuts to the corrections-based high school.
Lawmakers talked with inmates and staff members about the array of educational programs available, which give inmates a leg up when they exit the system.
“They spoke well of their situation,” Nitka said, noting that out-of-state prisons don’t offer the same opportunities.
She said closing a Vermont prison would be contrary to the mission of bringing home the roughly 400 inmates Vermont currently sends to out-of-state prisons. Nitka, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, called the savings from closing the Windsor prison “a small amount of money” when contrasted to other impacts, such as job loss.Ultimately, she said she hopes the Windsor prison isn’t in the budget that comes up for a Senate vote because she is “definitely supporting a balanced budget.”
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Lyndon, who represents several Bradford-area towns, said he needs more information before taking a stance. His “knee-jerk” reaction, though, is to keep the prison in operation, he said.
“If I had my druthers, I’d keep it open,” Benning said. “(But) I think it would be smart to take the time to figure out what it all means.”
A qualm that comes along with closing the prison, Benning said, is the number of jobs that would be lost.
“Our side of the state can’t afford to keep giving away jobs,” Benning said.
Sweaney, the Windsor Democrat, said she might still vote for the budget bill even if it includes closing the Windsor prison, but hopes other savings can be found instead.
The bottom line, Sweaney said, is that cuts must be made from somewhere in the budget.
“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” Sweaney said.
Meanwhile, a majority of the Republican caucus will not support the budget proposal because it includes $35 million in income tax increases. (Four Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee, however, voted for the budget, which was approved in a rare, unanimous vote.)
Republicans said their objective is to level-fund the fiscal year 2016 budget.