Shock Waves: Governor’s budget speech stuns community, officials with surprise plan to close womens correctional facility

Local officials and residents expressed shock with the surprise announcement by Gov. Doug Burgam a week ago that the womens correctional facility would be closed in New England and moved to another location. Herald photo / Brad Mosher

In what amounted to a complete surprise to the community of New England, the governor of North Dakota has announced plans to move the inmates at the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center.

By Brad Mosher

The Herald

The state has been leasing the facility on Main Street in New England since it opened in late November in 2003.

Slightly more than 15 years later, the facility was identified in the governor’s budget address to the state as a line item. The budget recommendation was to add $4.9 million from the General Funds and 44.80 FTE (full-time) positions for the relocation of female inmates to the Missouri River Correctional Center and the minimum security male inmates to the James River Correctional Center.

The announcement came as a surprise to New England School Superintendent Kelly Koppinger.

Just a day after watching New England student Tate Norsby and the rest of the Dickinson wrestling team fill the gym with parents and fans in the first wrestling match ever at the school, the superintendent got the biggest shock of the year.

The next morning, Koppinger said he saw reports in the local media. “I had to read it twice.”

That was the first he had found out that the governor had announced a plan that would lead to losing students as their parents probably would follow.

After 15 years in New England, the governor announced plans to move the North Dakota Womens Correctional and Rehabilitation Facility out of New England. Hdrald photo / Brad Mosher

He said that he wasn’t alone. Koppinger added that director of the women’s facility had not been told before Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget address Dec. 6.

In the address, he called for $35 million from Legacy Fund earnings to replace the aging state hospital in Jamestown and eventually repurpose it as a minimum custody corectional facility for men. “Which in turn will allow the state to relocate women’s prison services services from New England to the Missouri River Correctional Center south of Bismarck. Together, these changes will allow for the consolidation of facilities and more efficient operations that will provide long-term savings of at least $7 million per biennium,” he said.

Impact

The impact in the community about the announcement was mixed.

For some, it was already a done deal.

Others doubted the governor would be able to close the facility, noting that there already been a negative response from the local state representative from District 36, Mike Schatz.

According to Schatz, the impact on the city of New England will be large. He said that it would cost 56 full time jobs and 70 jobs overall.

That is a big economic impact for a community of approximately 600 people.

In addition, he publicly questioned using the state’s “legacy fund” for the proposed move. He thought it wasn’t an emergency.

In a public statement earlier, Schatz said that he plans to work to keep the facility open in New England “It is a bit ironic that the Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehabilitation Center is on Main Street in New England and the Governor has a Main Street initiative and he is really just taking from our town and giving it to another so I don’t think that it will bode too well.”

Prior to being elected to the state legislature in 2009, Schatz was a president of the New England Park Board.

Local mayor surprised

The announcement came as a surprise to Mayor Marty Opdahl.

He said the decision would have a dramatic impact on the community’s tax base and on expenses for taxpayers.

Opdahl also questioned the governor’s move to take more revenue generators from the stat’s rural communities. Those communities are left to struggle with the economic losses, he added in a public statement after the proposed closure became public knowledge.

He did promise to do everything possible to keep the facility in New England.

The facility itself is actually owned by the Southwest Consortium of Counties. They have to meet and find out what is going on there,” the mayor said.

The biggest part of the impact on the community is that there was absolutely no advanced announcement given to anybody – administrators at the correctional facility, city officials, county officials – nothing,” he said.

“That was probably the biggest disappointment to start off with.

“I found out about it on a call from Prairie Public. They had been attending the governor’s news conference on his budget. They called and asked me what I thought about the governor’s budget and I said I am at kind of a disadvantage since I haven’t heard a word about it.”

Opdahl said he didn’t know why the governor did what he did. “I don’t know his rationale. I have not talked to the governor. I have not talked to anybody from the division of prisons or the correctional facility or at the state level.

“But it sure doesn’t seem to fit his initiative on Main Street,” the mayor added.

“Ultimately, it is going to be the legislators who are going to decide this, whether it is in the budget or not. I would hope they would realize that you have got to take care of the small towns too.

“When you get something really decent like this in a small town, that is really important for the survival of these small towns,” he added.

The impact could be felt throughout the county and the region, he added.

“It would be a tremendous impact. I look at the New England Main Street and I look at the grocery store. I look at the hardware store. I look at the school and the amount of kids going to school whose parents work at correctional facility. They have possibly bought a house in New England and now they are going to be looking for work. What other opportunity is there in New England right now other than the correctional facility?

“Some of those people will be uprooted from their lives and pushed out. That is going to have a direct impact … on the school, the grocery store, the eating establishments … all the way down to the hairdresser.

“That is all going to have a direct impact on Main Street and I think Main Street will struggle with losing the correctional facility,” the mayor said.

At the school, the superintendent is at a tremendous disadvantage.

“He told me he was disappointed in how he found out. He has to try to get financing. He has to reevaluate the building project and what they were looking at .

“There is a trickle down. There might be about 20 kids who are affected by this, but you’ll start to see businesses close on Main Street because of this, then there will be more kids impacted.

“Looking at it from the city standpoint, who is our largest water user in the city of New England? It is the correctional facility.

“A lot of what we were basing our repayments on for the water project was based on water sales. I can see a tax increase as the result of this (closure).

“We won’t have the water sales we’d be using to repay this project.

“So, the city will be influenced,” the mayor added.

Because of impact of the facility, it won’t just be felt in New England if the facility is closed, according to Opdahl. “Mott will be influenced. Hettinger will be influenced. Regent will be influenced. The consortium of counties that own the facility, what will be their options for the facility. They are going to be impacted tremendously.”

Need to fight

The mayor said it will be up to the communities and counties to coordinate with the state legislators to stop the proposed move.

“We need to have an effort made by everybody involved to talk to our legislators and get the legislature to see that this stays in New England.

“We are going to approach this with we have the correctional facility here now and it is going to stay,” he added.

“The first battle we have to fight … is keeping the correctional facility in New England.”

The correctional facility has 62 full-time employees, about eight part-time employees and a total of 126 inmates.

When the facility opened its doors in late 2003, it brought workers from the surrounding communities, including Dickinson.

The impact in the community is not just financial, Opdahl said.

“The local churches have gotten involved. The Lions have gotten involved. There have been goodwill gestures from the churches and from the Lions supporting the prison population at the holiday times,” he said.

If the facility is closed and moved, the local housing and rental market will get a lot softer, the mayor added.

According to Opdahl, the first step in the battle to keep the correctional facility open will be at the county level.

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