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Critics question prison land sale

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Department of Corrections is hoping its plan to sell several pieces of state property will make up a $30 million deficit in its fiscal 2008 budget. But critics question the wisdom of selling capital assets to generate annual operating funds.

“Who benefits if the problem is not fixed?” Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, said Wednesday. “If money is short in the next years and the property is sold, you’ve still got the same problem.”

The Senate approved $343.3 million for the corrections department’s 2008 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. But corrections officials say the 2.08 percent increase over 2007’s $336.3 million allotment isn’t enough.

Operating costs for 2006 were $372.6 million and corrections asked that $472 million be allocated for 2008. Also, lawmakers didn’t approve a $20 million conditional appropriation that the department was granted — and used — in fiscal 2006 and 2007.

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said the land sale will raise money for minor repairs and small capital projects, but for the most part it will be going to operating costs for programs and the department’s 35 institutions, centers and camps.

“It enables us to operate at the same level as this year — it’s just the same level of operations,” he said recently. “Are we comfortable? No. Are we still overcrowded? Yes. Those major problems really aren’t being solved.”

Allen said corrections has around $94 million dollars worth of backlogged maintenance projects and there’s not enough money to build new prisons, hire more staff or give personnel pay raises.

Government agencies often find themselves in such a dilemma because they’re not always properly funded, said Robert W. Ingram, senior associate dean at the University of Alabama’s Culverhouse College of Commerce.

But at the same time, selling off property to stay functioning is a dangerous cycle, he said.

“Typically from a business perspective, that’s just not appropriate because money that you’re going to get from selling assets is just one-time money,” Ingram said Wednesday. “If indeed the department has assets that it doesn’t need, certainly it makes sense to get rid of it. But that ought to be a different decision on whether the funds are going to keep things running.”

Corrections officials are scheduled to meet with Riley on Friday to give him a list of all the land that will be sold and their appraised values. Riley must approve the list before the plan can proceed.

The governor is expected to announce Thursday whether he will sign the budget for the General Fund, which includes corrections money.

Riley said last week that he would be making some changes to the budget, but did not say what those were.

Riley said the land should be sold because it can help fund capital projects like replacing broken oven doors.

“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘How can we have all this land that is totally unproductive? Wouldn’t it be better that we take some of the surplus land ... and try to correct some of the systemic problems that are in the system today?” he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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