KOLD INVESTIGATES: Closing Florence Prison could cost taxpayers millions annually

Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent proposal to close the Florence Prison could cost $50 million a year.
Published: Mar. 3, 2020 at 11:00 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Governor Doug Ducey said he would save taxpayers millions of dollars by closing the Florence Prison, but our KOLD Investigates Team learned those are not actual dollars you will see saved in the budget.

In fact, it may end up costing taxpayers big time.

Governor Ducey made the surprise announcement in his State of the State.

“We are shutting down a state prison. It will enhance safety in our remaining facilities and save the taxpayers over $274 million over the next three years," Governor Ducey said.

“My biggest question just gets down to the numbers,” said state Representative Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley.

Lieberman is on the House Appropriations Committee.

“I’m all for closing prisons. I wish we could figure out criminal justice reform and have fewer people in our prisons, close them down, but I just want to make sure we are being good stewards of taxpayers’ money," Lieberman said.

The committee heard a presentation by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on just how much the state would spend and save with the governor’s multi-phase plan to close the Florence Prison.

“This comes at a cost of $33 million, which annualizes to $49 million in fiscal 2022,” said analyst Geoff Paulson with the JLBC. "

“Members, you may have seen some numbers out there quoting potential cost savings for closing Florence ranging between $150 million and $400 million. These aren’t actual literal savings you would see in the budget. The cost savings are cost avoidance," Paulson said.

According to the governor’s estimates, Paulson said it would cost the state an estimated $50 million a year to pay private prisons and county jails to house the inmates who are currently at the Florence Prison.

“There are no long-term savings to closing the prison? In fact, it’s costing us $50 million a year more?” Lieberman asked.

“Yes,” Paulson said.

Lieberman said the committee was under the impression the repairs at the Florence Prison would cost about $70 million. That number came from the Arizona Department of Corrections’ 2021 Capital Improvement Plan.

“From testimony we heard, it sounded like we would get out of doing $70 dollars in improvements, those are one-time funds, but we would have to pay an additional $50 million every single year to house the prisoners. If those are the numbers, it doesn’t make sense to me why that’s a good deal for the state,” Lieberman said.

We asked the governor’s office about these numbers and received this response, "The $72.2 million figure is an outdated calculation- it only includes the most critical maintenance at Florence. The buildings need $151.8 million to actually repair them, which puts them in replacement territory according to the state’s facilities condition index formula.”

So how did the governor come up with that $274 million in savings?

The governor estimates the cost of building a new Florence Prison would total $404 million over the next three years. His plan to pay to house inmates elsewhere is an estimated $131 million over the next three years. The difference? Nearly $274 million.

We took this new information back to Representative Lieberman and asked if the appropriations committee knew anything about the governor’s $404 estimate to build a new prison or if lawmakers knew the $72 million they were given was an outdated number.

“Great question. That was not raised in appropriations. They didn’t talk and I hadn’t heard any discussion about building a new prison,” Lieberman said.

As lawmakers work to gather the information they need to make a decision, leaders in the Town of Florence work to compile a list of the direct and indirect impacts the closure of the Florence Prison could have on residents.

Benjamin Bitter is the Intergovernmental and Communication Manager for the Town of Florence. He said as of right now, Florence leaders estimate an annual financial hit of more than $3 million. He said a bulk of that, about $1.5 million, comes from the loss of state-shared and county transportation revenue.

Bitter said Florence is highly dependent on the distribution of revenue from the state, which is typically based on population estimates received from the U.S. Census Bureau each May. Bitter said the inmates at the Florence Prison, make up about 13% of the town’s population. If the nearly 4,000 inmates are transferred to prisons and jails outside of Florence, Bitter said that could hurt the funding they used to fund the police department, fire department, street paving and more.

Bitter said the Florence Prison also has a wastewater agreement with the town. If the prison closes, that is a direct loss of $1.25 million.

“Without any sort of mitigation to that, it’s naturally going to raise the rates everywhere else in town for those who are on the Florence sewer system,” Bitter said.

For now, Bitter said the town will continue to meet with the governor’s office and the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry to minimize the impact this proposal could have on the town, and to stay updated on any transitional plans.

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