Expedited Larch closure spurs anger

Lawmakers send new letter to governor, questioning motives

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

The entire Clark County legislative delegation sent a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire Thursday — the second in a week — questioning her motives for closing Larch Corrections Center and demanding to know why the closure timeline has been moved up.

The original plan by Gregoire and the Department of Corrections was to close part of the 480-bed minimum-security prison in April and to complete the transfer of staff and inmates by June 30.

Now Larch workers have told lawmakers that the first transfers are scheduled to begin March 1.

‘We cannot help but suspect that the motivation for this push to implement the closure plan is to render useless our efforts to keep Larch open and that if the majority of inmates are moved and a large number of staff are transferred to other institutions it would be too costly to undo these changes,” the legislators wrote.

“I’m very concerned that while the governor is expediting the timeline for closure, she’s delaying us from receiving critical information about the feasibility and long-term costs associated with full closure,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, in a written statement. “It seems the harder we push for accurate information, the more the timeline gets moved forward.”

Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis confirmed that one of the two units at Larch will close in March. He said that’s because the prison is receiving no inmates, so beds are emptying. He said the first wave of layoffs is still likely to happen in April.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, noted that the independent consultant the state hired to study the closure of state facilities last year recommended a temporary, partial closure of Larch and never analyzed the impacts of the full closure now planned by the governor.

“An independent study is supposed to take the politics out of the equation and insert factual data so that an informed decision can be made,” Zarelli said. “Unfortunately, the report is being ignored, politics seems to be playing a prominent role and local jobs will be lost unnecessarily.”

State officials have said the closure of Larch would save the state $12.5 million in the current budget cycle. But the lawmakers said when they met with representatives from the Office of Financial Management and the Department of Corrections recently, those officials were unable to answer their questions about the overall fiscal impact of closing Larch, including the capital costs of a permanent closure.

Rep. Jaime Herrera, R-Camas, noted that costs to the Department of Natural Resources are likely to go up dramatically without the use of the inmate fire crews based at Larch. The DNR pays about $3,000 a day to deploy a 20-man inmate crew; the going rate for a contract crew ranges from $9,000 to $15,000 per day.

“This is the type of action that continues to perpetuate a level of mistrust between citizens and government,” Herrera said.

Lewis told The Columbian that fire crews from Cedar Creek Corrections Center, near Littlerock in south Thurston County, will be deployed to fight the wildfires that Larch crews respond to now.

The legislators asked for a thorough study of the impact of the closure on DNR and other state natural resource agencies before the state moves forward with the closure.

“I believe state government needs to consolidate to save money,” Orcutt said. “But that consolidation has to create actual savings, not just perceived savings.” In fact, he said, the closure could result in a net increase in the state’s overall costs.

Thursday’s letter also notes that the closure would cost 114 jobs at a time when unemployment in Clark County has spiked to 14.3 percent, the highest jobless rate in Washington.

Signing the letter were state Senators Zarelli, Craig Pridemore, Don Benton and Jim Honeyford and Representatives Orcutt, Herrera, Deb Wallace, Tim Probst, Jim Moeller, Jim Jacks, Bruce Chandler and David Taylor.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.