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Crowley, Bent county leaders detail worries about losing private prisons

Christian Burney
LA Junta Tribune
Two public input hearings about the recent prison utilization study are scheduled to take place Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 regarding Crowley and Bent County prisons, respectively.

Two important public hearings are scheduled to be held virtually on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. The hearings will focus on the results of a prison utilization study examining the effects and economic impact on Crowley and Bent counties should the private prisons operating there be taken under state control or closed down entirely.

The sentiment from public officials in Bent, Crowley and Otero counties is that the closure of the private prisons in some of the poorest Colorado counties would be devastating to their economies.

The first hearing on Nov. 30 will focus on results of the study as it relates to Crowley County and the correctional facility, while the second hearing scheduled for Dec. 1 will concern Bent County.

At both public hearings, public input will be a key feature.

"Here in Crowley we estimate that the private facility pays around 54% of all the taxes in the county," said Blaine Arbuthnot, Crowley County chair of the Board of County Commissioners. "There's been talk, the state's put the word out that they may be interested in buying these facilities, and in that case, all that property tax goes away. When we ran our numbers here under that condition, we're looking at 40% layoffs just here in the county government. At that point there's no way you can actually provide services for the county. So it's huge for us."

Bent County isn't facing such a drastic drop in property tax revenues, but it still stands to lose a significant chunk of funding should the private prison facility there close.

"Our budget would also take a huge hit. It's about 17% of our general operating fund," Bent County Commissioner Kim MacDonnell said. "... That over $500,000 in fees, the county has primarily set those aside to use them for projects like economic development, things that are going to better the county. We really work to not use those funds for general operations. But they're funds that are available to us each year to do things within the county that are meaningful."

The private prisons serve as major economic drivers for both counties and even surrounding areas such as Otero and Pueblo counties, where many prison employees live. Over 200 people are employed at Crowley County Correctional Facility, and nearly 250 people are employed by Bent County Correctional Facility, both of which are owned by CoreCivic. The prisons house nearly 1,000 inmates each.

"We're kind of behind the 8 ball because we're over here in an area where the water was sold off," Arbuthnot said. "We don't have a major highway. We don't have the work force. We don't have rail — that may be coming back. And the big thing is we don't have power. We don't have enough power to supply the greenhouses that are being built out here for the marijuana cultivation. So we have a lot of problems if that prison is sold or closes.

"Beside the approximately 215 employees and that payroll, they (Crowley County Correctional Facility) are a third of our local water association's accounts. And of course, they have hard comp. That doesn't go away. It would put them in a bind and everyone else would end up paying more for the water. Talking to Black Hills Energy, same scenario there if it actually closed. That cost would be spread to all the customers throughout the valley and, I assume, even into the Pueblo County area. It truly is (a wide effect)."

Arbuthnot said the prison workforce is scattered across the southeastern plains of Colorado. He said based on recent estimates that Crowley County Correctional Facility employs people from 11 other Colorado counties.

Bent County Commissioner Chuck Netherton said the Bent County prison does close as a result of the study's findings, "this will be the first governor in the state to either cripple or bankrupt two of the poorest counties in the state of Colorado. That's what it'll do to us. Hopefully he doesn't want that legacy."

Netherton's sentiment was affirmed by his colleague and chair of the Bent County Board of County Commissioners Jean Sykes, who added, "That's basically the message. They need to understand that that is literally what will happen to Crowley and Bent. And it's not just our counties. It affects our surrounding counties. Some of these jobs are (filled by people) from Prowers, Otero, Kiowa and Baca counties. Even Crowley brings down a lot of people out of Pueblo. So there's more at risk than just a few people in Bent County. The devastation goes pretty much region-wide and the ripple effect, it may totally bankrupt or really take us to our knees for those two counties. But the other surrounding counties will also see the ripple effect."

Arbuthnot stressed that the upcoming public hearings are residents' chance to get their thoughts and feelings on the matter onto the official record that will be examined by the state.

"These hearings will give the local people a chance to get on the record," Arbuthnot said. "These comments will be presented to the legislature in January. So they will have the script for how these meetings go. Our hope is a little common sense takes over in Denver. We figured in the last 25 years that this prison has been open in Crowley, it has saved the state nearly a billion dollars. In fact, the privates do it cheaper than the state does, and the state doesn't put their actual costs into their numbers. They don't have the cost of building the facility, the cost of maintenance — those are all separate budgets that the state has that are not figured into the actual per diem that the state uses.

"You take a billion dollars that the state has had to put toward other programs throughout the years — that's huge. We would hope that personal views would not become part of the decision making. Look at it as what's best for the state, what's best for Crowley County, and keep this thing up and running."

The prison utilization study, which was conducted by RPI Consulting, a Durango-based consulting agency, will include suggestions on how Bent and Crowley counties can compensate for lost tax revenues should the prisons eventually close. But Arbuthnot isn't optimistic about any ideas that might be floated.

"They've gotta know in Denver that this is a big concern down here and that they can't just throw the idea — part of this study is also economic diversification. So if the prison goes away, here's some ideas that you can do to help bring your economy back. Well, a couple small businesses in no way can even begin to replace that facility tax-wise. And, rural Colorado, when we get excited about getting two or three businesses a year, that's basically a day up along the Front Range. Their growth is totally different than it is out here and I don't think they understand that. I think they can throw some ideas out that we can try, things can roll, and it just isn't gonna happen. The biggest problem is that (electrical) power."

Arbuthnot fears a rippling effect would devastate Crowley County schools should the prisons go away.

"It's a domino affect. If you lose 250 people and they have no jobs, they have to move, which brings down the cost of housing because you have the blip on your inventory for your housing. It affects the school. These individuals that work for Core Civic, they have the opportunity to transfer to other facilities around the United States. So when they do, they're going to lose kids out of the school system. It just rolls downhill when something like that happens.

"And they limit you. They say they don't want the private prisons, and yet they will not allow those prisons to bring outside inmates in from another state. My God, give us a chance to survive."

Bent County is looking at similar circumstances should the Bent County Correctional Facility close or become state owned and operated.

In a discussion with the Board of Bent County Commissioners, Chair Jean Sykes echoed many of the concerns shared by Arbuthnot.

"If we lose the private prison, it will be devastating to the county," Sykes said. "Not only do we have jobs, but property tax, and by it being a private prison, they do pay the property tax. They also have all kinds of sales taxes because they are very good supporters within the county as well. For us, it's going to be a drastic hit (should the prison close).

"We also have a little over $500,000 in additional fees that they pay. It was negotiated when the private prison originally came in. When you look at Bent County, it would be about $1.5 million that we would lose. I think our entire budget is just a touch over $5 million. So when you take one and a half mil out of that, we're going to be losing a lot of things."

Bent County Commissioner Chuck Netherton described the initial push by the state legislature to close all private prisons by 2025 as a slap in the face to Bent County taxpayers, who originally funded the construction of the Bent County prison in 1993, years before it was purchased by the private company CoreCivic. Back then, Netherton said, the state had more inmates that it could house on its own, so Bent County residents shouldered the responsibility of creating an extra facility to house prisoners in.

"It's kind of a sad way that this happened," Netherton said. "In 1993, the Bent County taxpayers built this facility because the state of Colorado had too many inmates and not enough funding to house them. So the taxpayers stepped forward and bought this facility. Since then it's been expanded, in '97 and 2008. Of course, at one point it was sold to CoreCivic as opposed to being Bent County taxpayer-owned. But now that the budget's a little better off for the state and they're releasing prisoners because the drug charges aren't standing up anymore and not being a felony like they used to be, all of a sudden we're not needed like we were before. It's kind of like a slap in the face. 'Now we don't need you anymore so we're going to kick you to the curb.'

Sykes added, "That 'not needing us' really isn't that they don't need the beds, it's more about the philosophical idea of whether or not a private prison is appropriate to house inmates. Although private prisons do the handling of the inmates and are expected to offer the exact same — anything from meals to programs to whatever else — as a state one does, but they get half of the money that the state facility does per inmate."

In June, a primary sponsor of the original private prison legislation (HB20-1019, Prison Population Reduction and Management), Rep. Lesley Herod, told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat, "The driver (of this legislation) has been that we have to reduce the prison population. Colorado has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation and we have long sentences. We've been working to decrease sentences, look at recidivism, and we have been successful in that; we don't need to open a new prison. We've actually been able to close facilities safely."

House Bill 20-1019 originally strived for the closure of all private prisons within Colorado by 2025. It passed quickly through the state House but slowed down in the Senate, where the legislation was rewritten to include the prison utilization study. The private prison closures by 2025 was also omitted from the final bill, but local public officials are certain that the closures remain the endgame destination for some legislators involved in the issue.

"Our projections are that we'll continue to decline the prison population slightly," said Herod. "... We have an opportunity to close prisons in Colorado. Our options would include things like a buyback. At this time we still need those beds. We wouldn't be leaving the community without purchasing those buildings back. We shouldn't just keep prisons open just for jobs.

"We should actually transition communities into actual sustainable employment options for them. It's not sustainable, we don't need to continue to grow our prison population and we're not going to keep prisons open, especially private prisons that have poor outcomes, because we want to keep people in jobs. That doesn't make any sense. But what we can do is buy back facilities, utilize them for different things, and make sure there's a transition for the community that's there."

The Crowley County public input hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Nov. 30. The Bent County public input hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 1.

To attend the live-streamed events:

  • Connect to the Zoom webinar via PC, Mac, tablet or smart phone: https://zoom.us/j/94965910073
  • Or watch the hearing live on YouTube: https://youtube.com/channel/UCkMe7y1odlXnGI4H7FdbkAw.
  • Select the live video, “Colorado Prison Utilization Study - Public Hearing.”

Comments will be accepted by telephone during the meeting. Participants can view the meeting on YouTube and call in to make a comment. To provide comments via telephone:

  • Dial 1-346-248-7799
  • Enter Meeting ID 949 6591 0073 (and then press #) 
  • It will ask for a Participant ID. If you don’t have one, just press #
  • Enter the meeting password: 499142
  • To request to speak, press *9
  • When called upon, unmute by pressing *6

If you cannot attend either of these hearings or prefer to provide written testimony, comments may be submitted to: https://rpiconsulting.checkbox.com/PrisonStudyPublicComment.

Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at cburney@ljtdmail.com. Help support local journalism by subscribing to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.