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Sen. Ward: State prison closure to cause '$20 million damage' to Westmoreland

| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 12:45 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson talks with the media after a private meeting on the impact of closing SCI Greensburg. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Christopher Abruzzo, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tom Corbett, talks with the media after a private meeting on the impact of closing SCI Greensburg. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County Commissioner Tyler Courtney talks with Christopher Abruzzo, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tom Corbett, after a private meeting on the impact of closing SCI Greensburg. Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review

When the state prison in Hempfield closes this summer, the local economy and municipal governments will lose an estimated $20 million in revenue, according to state Sen. Kim Ward.

The Hempfield Republican, who chairs the Senate's Community, Economic and Recreational Development Committee, said the closing of SCI Greensburg and the loss of 370 jobs will have a “trickle-down effect” that will impact local government and businesses. The $20 million figure comes from information gathered by her committee staff, she said.

For Hempfield, the closing means the loss of $20,000 in local service taxes, said manager Andy Walz. The loss of earned income tax hasn't been determined, he said.

Ward was among a group of state lawmakers, county and local officials who met privately Tuesday in Hempfield with officials from Gov. Tom Corbett's office, and the departments of Corrections, Labor and Industry, Community and Economic Development and General Services to discuss the impact of the June 30 closure of SCI Greensburg.

The meeting was not announced and was closed to reporters and the public.

Christopher Abruzzo, Corbett's deputy chief of staff, said the meeting was closed because “it was just a meeting with local officials to tell them what services our offices can give.” He said state officials wanted a “free and open dialogue.”

Ward said although she asked that the meeting be open to the public, corrections officials asked that it be private.

“They called the shots. There was nothing secret here,” Ward said.

Lance Burkholder, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said he was asked to leave the meeting before it started.

“I feel that's not right,” he said. “There's something going on they don't want us to know. We should be allowed in there. I don't consider us public because our families are being directly affected.”

Corrie Rigney, the wife of a corrections officer, was escorted out of the meeting room. She said her husband will have to travel to SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County to work.

“We have a right to know. We are involved. This is a kick in the face,” she said.

Ward said she was pleased that the Department of Corrections has opened job positions that were closed to accommodate corrections officers from SCI Greensburg who would have been forced to accept transfers far from home.

“We were so, so nervous that people would have to move out of the area,” Ward said.

Once the prison closes, the state Department of General Services will take control of the property and try to market it. Ward said she will ask Corbett to include money in his next budget to demolish the facility, located off Route 119. Without the demolition, the property will be harder to market, she said.

“Who is going to buy an old, dilapidated prison?” she asked. “It's the least the state can do after taking $20 million out of our economy. That would really help us to blunt the impact.”

Abruzzo said closing the Hempfield facility and another prison in Cresson, Cambria County, makes economic sense because of “less expensive bed space and safer prisons” in the newer facilities. SCI Greensburg opened in 1969 after it was constructed as the Westmoreland County Jail in the 1960s.

About 2,500 inmates from Hempfield and Cresson will be transferred to SCI Pine Grove in Indiana County and SCI Benner in Centre County. Corrections Secretary John Wetzel said it costs the state $110 a day to house an inmate in the Hempfield facility. At Benner, the cost will be $78 a day, he said.

“It was not an easy decision, not an easy decision,” Abruzzo added.

State Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, said he wasn't satisfied with the state's presentation.

“I'm still concerned with the numbers,” he said. “That concern is still there.”

Westmoreland County Commissioner Chuck Anderson said state officials gave no hint of what they intend to do with the facility.

“As of right now, there's no plan in place,” Anderson said. “This is a work in progress.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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