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State senator urges rejecting bids for former state prison site near Greensburg

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

Fueled by what she terms a long list of troubling, unanswered questions surrounding the sale of the former state prison near Greensburg, a Westmoreland County lawmaker is asking state officials to reject all bids for the facility.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, issued the call late Wednesday, just days after the Tribune-Review learned a contract penned more than 10 years ago with the winning bidder could drive the cost of closing the prison past $10 million.

In a letter, Ward asked Curt Topper, the acting secretary of the Department of General Services, to reject both bids received last week for the prison, which was closed in 2013 in what officials said was a cost-saving move. Topper, whose department oversaw the bidding process, could not be reached for comment.

The winning $950,000 bid for the site was received from Carlisle businessman David Goldsmith's Energy Management Concepts.

But Ward said she's concerned that the state appears to be on the hook for $7.6 million to buy out Greensburg Thermal LLC, another Goldsmith company that entered into a 2004 contract with the commonwealth to build a power plant at the prison to generate electricity. That contract mandates the $7.6 million buyout if the agreement is terminated this year.

Ward said she's also troubled by Goldsmith's uncertainty about how he will use the property, which local officials want to return to the tax rolls.

In an interview this week with the Trib, Goldsmith would offer no details about his plans for the site.

Robert “Steve” Vukelic, a Steubenville, Ohio, contractor whose $870,000 bid was rejected, was the only other bidder on the property.

He said he planned to tear down the prison and develop the property.

“I was out there six times. I went and got some engineering studies and some aerials. Our plan was to clean up the property, tear the buildings down,” Vukelic said.

Ward, who fought to keep the prison open, told Topper that neither she nor any other public officials she contacted was aware of the buyout clause in Goldsmith's contract.

“If the bids are rejected, I would appreciate working with you toward a proper solution for this property, one that fits with the community and results in substantial economic development,” Ward wrote to Topper.

Ward, along with state Reps. Tim Krieger, R-Delmont and Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant Township, are demanding answers about if and when corrections department officials knew about the buyout provision.

All three said explanations that closing the prison would save the state money simply haven't come to fruition.

“The budget for the Department of Corrections has just gone up,” Reese said.

Corrections officials would say only that no decision has been made regarding the buyout.

A spokesman for the union representing the prison guards displaced by the closing echoed Ward's complaint about being kept in the dark.

“During the closing process, (the union) raised questions about the future of the power plant but received no answers,” said Jason Bloom, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers' Association.

Bloom questioned the often-repeated explanation that closing the facility would enable the state to reduce costs and fill prison cells at a newer, less costly facility in Centre County.

“Rather than mothballing the jail and continuing to lose money, the state should reopen it to house the growing number of D class (special needs) inmates. The closing did absolutely nothing to ease the overall prison population and has led to higher overtime costs at other prisons because staffing levels are down,” Bloom said.

“When they closed the prison, their numbers never added up. Now with the additional $7.6 million owed, on top of a prison population of 108 percent (of capacity) plus the 30 or so (state inmates) who are in county jails, it's reasonable for the administration to take a second look and consider reopening the facility,” Ward said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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