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Corrections board seeks more state money for prison staff, facilities

Rod Boshart, CR Gazette –

State corrections officials vowed Friday to make another run at winning support for hiring more staff at state prisons and spending up to $30 million to get two new prisons operating and to make use of 178 beds in five Iowa locations where community-based residential facilities have been built but remain vacant or underutilized due to funding shortfalls.

“I am ever the optimist,” Iowa Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin told the agency’s oversight board members who pressed him about the prospects for convincing Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Legislature to provide the nearly $5 million needed to fully operate CBC facilities in Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Ottumwa, Sioux City and Waterloo that are built but have about 178 vacant beds and waiting lists because state money is needed to open them.

Funding for the residential facilities and another $25 million needed to staff and operate upgraded prisons in Fort Madison and Mitchellville were included in a two-year budget request that seeks state appropriation increases ranging from nearly $20 million to $36.6 million in fiscal 2014 to finance corrections operations and boost current staff levels by 264 to 512 full-time positions for the 12-month period that begins next July 1. If fully funded, the agency would receive $398.3 million for its fiscal 2014 operations.

“We think it’s a very fair budget,” Baldwin said. “We just want to get what we think is needed to run a very sophisticated and very good corrections system across the state of Iowa.”

Over the two-year budgeting period, the board approved budget requests that would pump from $40.3 million to $46.8 million worth of new money into the system and increase staffing by 535 to 637 positions. Currently, the agency has been allocated an overall fiscal 2013 spending level of about $367 million and a staff of 3,772 full-time positions through next June 30.

Leaders of the union that represents state corrections workers have called the current staffing levels and the requested increases woefully inadequate.

Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, said the staffing and funding issues appear to be caught up in an ongoing battle that the governor has had with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union. He said it doesn’t make sense to have CBC beds that are built but sitting vacant when it costs about $80 a day to house an offender in prison compared to $67 a day in a residential setting.

“I just don’t get it,” Courtney said in a telephone interview. “In my view we ought to be trying to get people back out of prison and on the streets and the community-based corrections is the way to do it.”

Branstad will take the department’s recommendations into consideration when crafting a two-year budget plan that he will submit to the Legislature next January. The corrections budget plan also proposed capital expenditures of $34 million next fiscal year and nearly $28 million in fiscal 2015 to build residential facilities in Des Moines, Ames and Burlington and address other maintenance and infrastructure needs.

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