Bad news landed in the county’s lap last week with the announcement the Bay City Work Camp in Apalachicola would close this month.
Christopher Atkins, warden of Carrabelle’s Franklin Correctional Institution (FCI), which oversees Bay City, told county commissioners July 2 he learned a day earlier of the closure, set to be completed by month’s end.
Atkins said the Florida Department of Corrections is running a $73 million deficit, and that other camps would be closing as well to help stanch the red ink.
The Bay City inmates, of which there were 282 as of June 2011, are “moving to brand new camps with lower operating costs,” he said. “As soon as we found out we wanted to let you know.
“Nobody will be losing their job,” said Atkins. “We are hiring more staff for an additional dorm at FCI and there will be promotion opportunities.”
Ann Howard, communications director for the DOC, said the department was in a deficit, but would not confirm its size. “We have no official number yet, the fiscal year just started,” she said.
She said the DOC would be closing facilities in Brevard and Glades counties, and opening work camps in Union, Liberty and FCI, the latter thought to absorb the bulk of the Bay City inmates.
“They will be moved, not necessarily to FCI,” she said. “We don’t discuss movements of inmates until they are securely moved.”
Howard said closure of Bay City, and the opening of the new FCI work camp, would gain between 10 and 14 additional jobs. Bay City employed about 67 correctional officers, as of March 2011.
The FCI work camp “will be opening this month, not sure when,” said Howard.
Atkins stressed to county commissioners “we don’t plan on stopping work squad services. As far as transports we’ll have to be creative, (and use) buses instead of individual trucks.”
He said the DOC is doing its best to accommodate the situation. “We’re going to be as flexible as we can,” said Atkins.
County Commission Chair Cheryl Sanders noted the county had written several letters asking Bay City not be closed. The commissioners then quickly focused on the logistics of how work squads would be handled.
In his interview seeking the post as head of the road department, DeWitt Polous, interim head of the department since Hubert Chipman’s retirement earlier this year, said “there’s not a lot of difference between going to Apalachicola and Carrabelle. As far as distance, there’s only two or three miles difference.
“We have two buses at the county yard right now. I’d like to assign some inmate squads to specific zones, and leave trucks parked at satellite stations” he said.
Polous noted that the county is down from five, regularly dispatched inmate squads. “We haven’t been operating at full capacity since Lamar (Hardy) left,” he said. “One or two days a week it seems like the DOC calls the squads in and won’t let them out, for whatever reason. It’s hot.”
Alan Pierce, county director of administrative services, noted the buses would not have to be caged.
“Every inmate squad leader will have to be on the bus to sign them out,” said Commissioner William Massey.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish said additional transportation time would mean a loss of time working by the inmates.
“How many hours a day are we losing to have to do this stuff, in actual work time?” he asked. “Some hours can be revised or revamped so it works for everybody.”
Sanders closed the discussion by asking that she, Pierce and Sheriff Mike Mock meet with the warden “to see what we can organize to make it more cost efficient for the county.”
Apalachicola to lose water, sewer revenue
The biggest concern over the closure was voiced at the Apalachicola city commission meeting July 2.
City Administrator Betty Taylor Webb said the city received $134,000 in water and sewer revenue from Bay City during the 2012-13 fiscal year. “It’s going to be a really tough budget year,” she said.
“It’s coming a lot faster than any of us would like. It’s here,” said County Attorney Michael Shuler, who was in attendance at the meeting as a member of the audience.
Howard said a reverter clause in place when the county first gave the land to the state in 1989 would mean the land and buildings would be deeded back to the county once the closure was complete.
Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson said he met three weeks ago with Dr. Frederick Humphries, president emeritus of Florida A & M University, who thought a good idea would be to use the site as a marine science academy that could draw scholars and students from around the country to do research.
Humphries, a former chemistry professor, had suggested money from the foundation set up by Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, might be available to fund the institution, Johnson said.
“We just don’t want this opportunity to escape us,” said the mayor.
The county’s representatives in Tallahassee both are opposed to the move.
“This has been rumored for quite some time,” said State Senator Bill Montford, who learned of Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews’ decision last week.
“The issue about closure is not new. I’ve been opposed the closing of it all along and my argument has been the same. My argument has been that it makes good economic sense, and transfers everybody over to the new one in the short run. That might look like the right thing to do,” he said. “If you look at the full impact of this decision, then it is not a wise decision financially, not a wise decision in terms of jobs. There are far reaching implications of this that need to be taken into account.”
He said both he and State Rep. Halsey Beshears plan to discuss their opposition to closure with DOC officials. Montford took care to point out he thought highly of Crews, and ceded his authority in this matter.
“I have tremendous respect for his judgment. I’m not sure the legislative side should get involved with those kind of decisions,” he said. “On this particular issue I disagree with him, as the senator who represents those constituents there.”
Montford said county’s legislators asked to be notified of any closures of work squads, and are now seeking more details on planning. “I’m looking forward to that interaction,” he said. “Let me see the plan. What I’ve asked for is their short range plan and their long range plan. I’d like to look at it. I look forward to vigorous discussion before it’s closed, I understand how it works. I understand who has what kind of authority.
“This has an impact on surrounding counties as well because a lot of people work there. We should pause and we should stop,” said Montford. “This facility is not located in central Florida where there are other job opportunities. They have had more than their share of troubling times. This is one more detrimental factor that’s entering into their equation down there. The community can’t afford this.”
Beshears sounded more resigned to the inevitable.” I always support the state trying to do what’s right in terms of their budget,” he said. “At the end of the day they’re consolidating. It cuts some costs overall. I support the DOC in trying to balance their budget.
“I don’t like surprises. This decision was done before anything (was discussed). I'd like to see those exact numbers myself,” he said. “Maybe we can do something about it next year.
“My heart goes out for the people. It’s going to be harder for them to commute,” he said. “I am thankful that they have somewhere else to go in the reasonable vicinity. We are fortunate that there is somewhere else to work.”
Montford said he planned to press his argument to the DOC, “to look at the total comprehensive impact,” including the loss of sewer and water revenue.
“That’s a big hit in their budget. How do they make that up?” he said. “Franklin County is a depressed area. It’s hurting.”
Montford suggested that bowing to this fight may be the outcome. “If they move forward with it, I will do my best to mitigate the damage and we’ll move on,” he said.
The future, in the state senator’s view, calls for finding a good use for where soon will have once housed prisoners for nearly 25 years, on the outskirts of Apalachicola. “I would hope we would not mothball it and find another alternative use for it,” said Montford. “Clearly we got to be creative in what we do.”
He said local officials need to be brought into the discussion of “what can we do with this facility?”
Montford added cost of a future plan must be considered.
“When you’re being creative it’s going to cost,” he said. “We’ve got the expertise here to try to address the issue. It’s incumbent on us to find an alternative use for that facility. A joint public-private effort may be the answer.
“The slate is clean,” said Montford.