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Critics dispute report on prison farms

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Rep. Ralph Howard, whose district includes the Farquhar State Cattle Ranch, urged Gov. Bob Riley and corrections officials to call off the planned sale of the farm Monday, saying money for capital improvements should be raised in other ways.

He said closing the 3,869 acre-ranch would mean losing valuable jobs in the already cash-strapped Black Belt community and would remove about $1.5 million from the county's economy.

"For a small city in the Black Belt to lose one job, it would hurt," the Greensboro Democrat said after an afternoon news conference on the Statehouse steps. "That's what I'm trying to avoid — the loss of any more jobs in this area."

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen and Riley unveiled plans this month to sell 5,763 acres of the state's "unproductive and money-losing" properties to generate $16.3 million to $23.8 million toward $90 million worth of capital improvement projects.

Howard says the cattle ranch, where 540 acres have already been sold this year, should be kept as an asset with timber being harvested for sale.

About 100 inmates live on the cattle ranch, which is one of the prison system's five farming operations.

Howard and other critics of the proposed sale are also disputing department of corrections figures on how much the ranch has lost in the past two fiscal years.

Allen said Monday that the original $229,374 the department reported as the ranch's losses for the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years was inflated by $89,807.

He said the increased amount was due to a data entry error and has been corrected, but it still shows that the ranch lost $139,567 and is a financial drain. Officials are hoping to sell the ranch for $9.2 million to $12.3 million.

"It's a losing business proposition. I asked them last year to put more money into it to try to make it profitable and they have not been able to do that," Allen said of the cattle ranch. "They have not made money in many, many years.

"Even if we got money out of heaven, there's no reason to continue operating a losing business. There's no reason to keep bleeding money," he said.

Full potential

Corrections officials say it would take about $350,000 and more than six years before the cattle ranch is brought to its full potential and substantial profits are generated.

Oleene Williams, who owns Lowndes County land in the Black Belt, said she was disappointed when the news of the sale was announced.

"If the governor is so interested in helping the Black Belt, why is he doing this? Why is he selling Farquhar? It seems to me to be a slap in the face of the people of Hale County," she
said following the news conference.

"The legislature should give them enough funds to pay for the prisoners' keep. They get all this money and they spend it to fix the problem for one year and then what are they going to do? Where are they going to get the money from?" she asked.

Riley, who is scheduled to speak at the launch of the first of several rural action commissions on Tuesday, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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

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