Larch closure back on the table

Worsening of state’s budget picture could end prison’s reprieve

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Larch Corrections Center is on the chopping block again as Gov. Chris Gregoire looks for ways to cut 4 to 7 percent from state agency budgets to deal with a worsening revenue picture.

Gregoire confirmed in a speech Thursday that if the Department of Corrections has to close a prison this year, Larch is the likely candidate. The cuts, if revenue doesn’t rebound in September, would take effect Oct. 1.

The governor’s 2009-11 budget called for closing the 480-bed minimum-security prison near Yacolt to help close a $3 billion budget deficit. But Southwest Washington lawmakers from both parties fought the closure, citing the work done by Larch inmate crews who fight wildfires and perform environmental restoration projects.

In the end, the 2010 Legislature voted to keep one of the two 240-bed units open.

But Department of Corrections chief Eldon Vail said Thursday that the closure of Larch as part of a consolidation of minimum-security beds statewide is one of several options he has recommended to the governor to deal with the new projected revenue shortfall.

“If we can put people into more highly efficient beds, that saves money,” Vail said. “Of our minimum-security facilities, (Larch) is the most expensive. It is not something we want to do, but it is a reflection of where we are with the checkbook at the end of the month.”

When Larch housed 480 inmates, it was slightly more expensive to run than the state’s other minimum-security prisons based on costs per bed, he said. Now that it houses 240, it’s even more expensive on a per-bed basis. “You take half the inmates out and the fixed costs stay,” he said.

Vail said the state would realize a net savings of about $2.5 million from closing Larch over the last six months of the current budget year. But he said that’s only 10 percent of the $25 million the corrections department might cut if it has to slice 4 percent from its operating budget.

Also under consideration are cuts in drug treatment programs for ex-inmates under community supervision and elimination of state-paid treatment for sex offenders under community supervision, he said.

“We are really down to some very difficult decisions here,” Vail said. “I’m hoping the Legislature makes this decision.”

State Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, agrees. Zarelli renewed his call Thursday for a special session to cut the budget, to be preceded by meetings between the governor and House and Senate leaders from both parties.

“My rationale has not changed,” Zarelli said. “Everyone thought if we got the federal money, that would balance things out, but what has become clear is that revenue is substantially down, and that results in a half billion dollars more in deficit” by mid-2011, he said.

Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee, commended Gregoire for planning ahead. But he said there are many flaws in an across-the-board cuts approach. Using that “blunt instrument” implies that tourism promotion and programs for people with developmental disabilities are of equal importance, he said.

“A better approach would be for the Legislature to come back into a short special session to address this budget crisis,” Zarelli said. That’s because the Legislature can do three things that the governor cannot do under Washington law, he said: Prioritize cuts to protect the most essential government functions, leave enough money in reserve to see the state through until June 30, 2011; and enact reforms that will result in long-term savings.

There’s plenty of time to hold such a session in the next 45 days, Zarelli said.