Bombshell in Conneaut
City police will be burdened with investigating prison crime
The Star Beacon Tue Oct 11, 2011

CONNEAUT — When the state prison goes private at the end of the year, it will be city police officers — not state troopers – who will be obliged to investigate every crime within the facility, City Council learned at a finance/ordinance committee meeting Monday night.

“This is a bombshell,” said Ward 3 Councilman Greg Mooney.

The meeting was attended by State Rep. Casey Kozlowski, R-Pierpont, who was asked to brief council on the pending sale of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution to Corrections Corporation of America. Instead, he was peppered with questions and pleas for help.

At the start of September, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced the LaECI, one of only privately managed prisons in the state’s inventory, would be sold for little more than $72 million to CCA, a leader in the private corrections business. CCA is expected to be given the keys effective Jan. 1.

The transaction will save the state millions of dollars, but could wind up saddling the city of Conneaut with six-figure debt, officials feared.

The biggest financial headache figures to be the cost of policing crimes that occur within the minimum/medium security facility. As a state prison, the Ohio State Highway Patrol was responsible for investigating crimes. House Bill 153, however, states that law enforcement duties fall to the agency with jurisdiction — meaning the Conneaut Police Department.

It’s hard enough to police the city without adding a prison that could contain nearly 2,000 inmates, council members said.

“It becomes a local problem and we just don’t have the resources,” said City Manager Timothy Eggleston.

Councilman-at-large Neil LaRusch, finance/ordinance committee chairman, agreed.

“This will put a tremendous strain on our police force,” he said. “We’re going to need as much help as we can get.”

As a private business, the prison will generate property tax revenue for the city, the local school district, Ashtabula County and other entities. However, the exact number hasn’t been pinned down, making it difficult for the city to plan — and budget — accordingly, officials said.

Tax money the city may have wanted to earmark elsewhere may now have to be spent on police officers, council said.

“Although it looks like a windfall, it’s not,” Eggleston said.

The manager and council were also upset the city wasn’t briefed on their role in the prison transition.

“The whole problem is the locals weren’t involved,” Eggleston said. “Now we’re scrambling. Now we’re behind the 8-ball."

Council President Thomas Udell was also upset.

“We should have been represented,” he said. “We need somebody to stick up for us.”

LaRusch said he has heard reports from prison employees that wages could be cut as much as $4 an hour when CCA takes the reins. If wages are significantly reduced, that will create a ripple effect throughout the community, affecting businesses and municipal income tax collections, officials said.

Eggleston said the city has been approached about splitting off some of the prison property that contains wetlands, presumably to cut CCA’s tax liability.

Kozlowski said he plans to meet with DRC representatives today and will pass along the city’s concerns. He was sympathetic, but also noted the situation could have been worse — the DRC could have opted to close the prison.

“It’s still a win,” Kozlowski said. “We have those jobs here.”

When the sale was announced, the CCA said it planned to add 304 beds to the prison that housed 1,511 inmates as of August, according to the DRC website.

The state was poised to sell five prisons, but instead agreed to part with only one — the LaECI — saying it represented the best deal.

CCA plans to operate the prison at an 8 percent savings compared to a state-run facility. While everyone assumes the savings will come from wage cuts, CCA — as a national company — can leverage deals on products and supplies that factor into their operating budget.

The state will pay CCA an ownership fee, plus $44.25 a day for every LaECI inmate. The per diem cost presently is $46.38, according to the website.

Law enforcement wasn’t the only concern. Council asked Kozlowski to help pin down a tax revenue figure, plus find out whether CCA will continue the inmate work crew program that has helped the community over the years.

Ward 2 Councilman Charles Lewis, who has argued strongly the city should be reimbursed the $500,000 it spent more than a decade ago to bring a state prison to town, pressed his case with Kozlowski. Back then, the city and state were partners in the project, Lewis said. Now that the prison will be a private business, the city is entitled to its money back, he said.

“We have a lot of hard-earned money in this,” Lewis said. “If the state hadn’t made so much money (on the sale) it wouldn’t be an issue.”

Kozlowski said the state still must pay CCA to house its prisoners and will also use some of the sale proceeds to pay off bonds issued to finance the prison’s construction.