By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican legislators have developed a plan to sell a landmark prison in northeastern Wisconsin and open a new facility they say will save money, improve safety and open land for redevelopment.
Rep. Dave Steffen and Sen. Frank Lasee have introduced a bill that calls for selling the 120-year-old Green Bay Correctional Institution and building a new facility in Brown County or an adjacent county.
A private entity would build and own the new prison, allowing the home county and other jurisdictions to collect property taxes on it. The Department of Corrections would operate it through a lease agreement with an option to purchase. The Assembly’s prison committee will hold a public hearing on the measure Tuesday.
Steffen, of Green Bay, and Lasee, of De Pere, wrote in a memo seeking co-sponsors that Green Bay Correctional is over capacity and needs extensive repairs and updates, leading to safety concerns.
Decommissioning the prison also would free up the land it stands on for redevelopment.
“The bottom line is that none of the challenges facing our state’s prison system are addressed by doing nothing,” the lawmakers wrote in the memo. “In fact, the longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive our remaining options become.”
The prison sits on the Fox River in Allouez, a Green Bay suburb. It originated in a brick bicycle factory in 1897 as a reformatory for men. It’s now a 29-acre maximum security facility with an imposing perimeter wall and guard towers. The original stone-clad reformatory still stands, though, and the institution is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The prison employs about 360 people. It held 1,098 prisoners as of May 5, well over its 749-inmate capacity, according to the DOC’s website. The prison cost $37.1 million to run last year, the state’s second-costliest after Waupun, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The bill doesn’t set an asking price for the prison or allocate money for leasing a new facility, instead directing the Department of Administration to solicit bids. A DOA estimate attached to the bill said building a 1,300-inmate maximum prison could cost as much as $309 million; purchasing the building would likely requiring bonding, creating an undetermined amount of interest.
Steffen and Lasee’s projections, however, show the state will spend about $628 million over the next decade to operate and make repairs to Green Bay Correctional. A new prison would cost an estimated $474.5 million to lease and maintain over that span, based on data from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the last two state budgets, a 2009 consultant study of the state prison system and adjustments for future inflation.
Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 capital budget includes $22.2 million for cell block improvements at Green Bay. Steffen said the bill would the state that money immediately since there’d be no point in making the repairs with a new facility in the future.
“It will cost more to repair this facility to build a new one,” Steffen said in a telephone interview. “Let’s be thinking long-term. (The Green Bay prison) isn’t a beautiful old library people can go visit. Very few will miss it.”
Jim Rafter, president of the Allouez village board, said he supports the proposal. He called selling the prison a huge opportunity to redevelop that land and turn it into a taxable property. The prison’s historical status could be a hurdle, but Rafter said the location’s history could be incorporated into whatever materializes on the lot.
“Right now it holds a bunch of cells that could be turned into retail, office space, apartments or a hotel or a mixture thereof,” Rafter said. “I don’t see how anyone loses by doing this. We could do really do something cool with that spot.”
Spokespeople for legislative leaders and Walker didn’t return messages.