TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In a painful "good news, bad news" decision projected to save Florida taxpayers $90 million and cost nearly 1,300 state employees their jobs, the Florida prison system announced plans Thursday to close seven institutions and four work camps starting next month.
One of the closures is the two units which make up New River Correctional in Bradford County.
The prison system is one of the largest employers for those who live in Starke.
"It is a huge employer for our county. Even if the state does keep all the employees they are going to be farmed out to other places," said Starke business owner Chrissy Allen.
Allen runs a cafe not far from New River Correctional. She expects her business could be hurt with the closure because many of her lunch patrons are from the prison.
"It's one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do as a manager," Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker said. While there are no guarantees, Tucker said "we are very much committed" to helping employees find new jobs, either in the DOC, other state agencies or city and county jails.
Anne Howard, a spokesperson for the DOC said on Friday that workers at New River have a chance to apply for jobs at eight different correctional facilities within 50 miles of Starke.
Starke's Mayor Daniel Nugent released a statement saying the prison closure, "...will have a financial impact on the city and the county. It will have a definite impact on us and the possibility of relocation of people will be devastating to our city and the county."
The closure also list includes Jefferson Correctional Institution in Monticello, with 177 authorized positions, and the River Junction Work Camp in Chattahoochee, which has 77 state jobs. Chris Doolin, a lobbyist for the Small County Coalition, said the Jefferson prison is the county's largest employer, with a $10.2 million direct economic impact on the community.
"For 50 years, the state has used rural counties to place these prisons," said Doolin. "I don't see why they need to take them away, with such a huge impact on the local economies, instead of consolidating some in big counties where the impact would be proportionately less."
With the state crime rate and new prison admissions edging steadily downward, Gov. Rick Scott has told the state's largest agency to reduce positions in the 2012-13 budget year. Tucker and Tim Cannon, the assistant secretary for institutions, said the agency has capacity for 112,000 bed space now and currently committed construction plans will expand that to 116,000 by October.
Meanwhile, the number of prisoners is projected to be below 100,000 through 2016.
"I'll be honest with you: We approached this as a business model," Tucker said in an afternoon news briefing. "It's a good-news, bad-news issue. The good news is, crime is down, prison admissions are down and fewer people are entering into the system.
"The bad news is, it's going to impact the lives of many employees of the Department of Corrections and many employees outside the Department of Corrections."
Besides Jefferson's closing on April 1, prisons to be closed are Broward Correctional Institution on May 1, Demilly on June 1, Gainesville on Feb. 1, Hillsborough on March 1, Indian River on May 1, and New River in March. The work camps to be closed are River Junction and Caryville Work Camps and Levy Forestry Camp on Feb. 1 and the Hendry Work Camp on June 1.
The prisons and camps have 1,293 full-time-equivalent positions. Closing them is projected to save $14.9 million in the remainder of this year and $75.7 million in the year starting July 1.
Teamsters Union Local 2011, which took over bargaining rights of prison officers from the Florida Police Benevolent Association in November, issued a statement saying the closure announcement coincided with the start of contract talks.
"Local 2011 is strongly opposed to the closing of these prisons, which will have a negative impact on FDOC officers, their families and the communities," said Teamsters state president Ken Wood. "The closings of these prisons are on the backs of hard-working FDOC officers who keep Florida communities safe."
Matt Puckett, president of the FPBA chapter, said his union still has many members working in the prisons. He said Scott should have targeted some privately run prisons, rather than closing state institutions. The Legislature tried last year to privatize prisons in 18 South Florida counties but the move was thrown out in court.
"I think it's unfair that the state facilities are being chosen, and they're not looking at the private prisons," said Puckett. "This is more jobs being lost under Gov. Scott."
State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said school districts and prisons are the main employers in many small counties. He said the prison job cuts "will have a tremendously negative impact" on main street merchants in Monticello, Marianna and other towns around the prisons. That, he said, will result in higher food stamp, public housing and unemployment compensation costs.
"This is one more case when we might not be able to afford the savings," Montford said. "There'll be more people showing up at the emergency room without insurance. There'll be more people on unemployment. It's going to cost us in the long run."
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, represents Gadsden County, where the River Junction closing will be most felt. He said Scott, in his State of the State speech last Tuesday, talked enthusiastically about creating jobs in Florida.
"His action reminds me of how, so often, we hear that government doesn't create jobs," said Williams. "But in this case, it seems like government - or at least Gov. Rick Scott - is destroying jobs for Floridians."
Tallahassee Democrat, First Coast News