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FRIDAY, JULY 13, 2007

Plan to sell state land still dogged by criticism

MONTGOMERY (AP) — When corrections officials said earlier this year that state property would be sold to plug a $30 million hole in its operating budget, the plan was quickly denounced by those who said property should not be sold for recurring annual costs.

When Gov. Bob Riley and Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen announced Wednesday that money from selling 5,763 acres will instead go toward overdue capital improvements, not operational costs, the change still didn't sit well with critics, who said it is shortsighted and should be re-evaluated.

"Here's the problem," University of Alabama criminal justice professor Bob Sigler said Thursday. "Selling the land is a one-time solution to a long term problem.

"The governor's intention is to move property from the department of corrections to private use — it doesn't make sense," he said.

The department has about 21,000 acres total and hopes the sale, which includes the Farquhar State Cattle Ranch in Greensboro, will generate $16.3 million to $23.8 million.

Those funds will be used to make a dent in the $90 million worth of repairs and renovations that are needed to bring the system up to code.

Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, said he was "extremely frustrated" that Hale County — one of the poorest in the state — will suffer an economic hit with the loss of the cattle ranch.

"They buy the catfish food here, the cattle feed here, the medicine for the cattle — all that stuff is purchased locally," he said.

Corrections officials say its farming operations are a financial drain. But according to its 2006 annual report, total farming revenue statewide that year was $2.4 million, with catfish bringing in $389,877 and cattle accounting for $1.1 million.

But Allen said those numbers don't tell the full story because operating costs aren't listed. When those are accounted for, he said, it's not economically justified.

"We've got a $10 million asset bringing in $150,000 a year," he said. "That's why it doesn't make sense for us to keep those on."

Donaldson prison in Bessemer will receive $3.3 million for renovations including its roof, doors, locks and security hardware. The Tutwiler women's prison in Wetumpka will have more than $1 million worth of work done and the Staton prison in Elmore will have a $2.4 million kitchen installed and its health care unit will be expanded.

Sigler said the department would do better to either lease some of the land or invest money from the sales so those returns could be a source of additional annual revenue.

"That would not solve the long term financial burden, but it would do a lot more than selling it to pay one-time bills," he said.

Also to be sold is all but 364 acres of the 2,215-acre Red Eagle Honor Farm in Montgomery, 32 acres in Wetumpka on Highway 231 North and 10 acres at the old Kilby prison in Montgomery.

Operations will continue on the Red Eagle farm and Allen said there is a possibility that a similar arrangement might be worked out for the cattle ranch, which currently employs about 100 inmates.

He said future land sales and leasing agreements could be incorporated if new jails need to be built, but the best case scenario is if new sentencing guidelines and transition programs eliminate the need for expanding the system.

Sigler agreed.

"We need to get people out of jail or keep them from going in the first place. The governor's doing all the right things in terms of that," Sigler said.

"He's doing as much as he can right now without the support of people in the state. The people in the state need to stand up and say this 'get tough on crime thing' is not working."

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

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