Gregoire urged to reconsider Larch closure

Governor tells lawmakers she will mull their concerns




Legislators from Southwest Washington met with Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday and asked her to reconsider her decision to close Larch Corrections Center. The governor made no promises, but did agree to consider lawmakers’ concerns, said Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver.

The meeting came as the county’s mayors, fire chiefs and county commissioners also joined in pressuring Gregoire to hold off on the closure of the minimum-security prison, citing fire safety concerns if the inmate firefighting crews at Larch are relocated.

The mayors of Battle Ground, Camas, Washougal and Yacolt and 10 fire chiefs signed on to the letter written by Chuck Cushman, director of the American Land Rights Association in Battle Ground.

No new inmates are being admitted to Larch, and prison employees have been told that the first staff transfers are scheduled to begin March 1 after one of the prison’s two 240-bed units is closed.

The original plan by Gregoire and the Department of Corrections was to close half the prison in April and to complete the transfer of staff and inmates by June 30.

Wallace said she pointed out to Gregoire on Monday that according to corrections officials, it will cost $250,000 annually to guard the closed prison, which is located on state forest land in east Clark County.

“Just imagine having an empty prison we have to guard,” she said. “This is a very isolated facility. People will go up there and strip metal.”

On top of that, she said, losing the 100-plus jobs at Larch will “so negatively impact our community” at a time when Clark County has the state’s highest unemployment rate.

“I understand we have budget issues, but we asked her to consider other options,” Wallace said.

“I thought it was a good meeting,” said Marty Brown, the governor’s legislative director. “They raised some good questions. She pushed back.”

Gregoire has no plan to reverse her decision, Brown said.

The closure of Larch is part of a streamlining of the state prison system intended to save the state tens of millions of dollars in this budget cycle.