The chorus of anger and resignation gets louder every time the state has to shell out more money for the Stanley Correctional Institution.
“It’s a white elephant,” said David Helbach, administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Division of State Facilities and secretary to the state Building Commission. “It was a bad deal, and it never should have happened.”
But it happened and has cost taxpayers ever since.
Construction of the 43-acre prison began in 1998 as a joint venture between the city of Stanley and Dominion Venture Group, Edmond, Okla. The prison was built to state specifications with the understanding the state would buy the prison upon completion.
Helbach, who joined DOA two years ago, said the state negotiated an $82 million deal to buy the prison. But, he said, it was a curious deal considering the state was in the midst of a prison construction boom in the late 1990s.
“We bought it for about 30 percent more than we could have built it for,” Helbach said. “And we could have done it better.”
Since paying the $82 million and opening the prison in 2000, Wisconsin has dumped almost $20 million into upgrades and repairs, Helbach said.
That trend extended Wednesday when state Building Commission members unanimously approved a $313,250 boost to a security upgrade project, increasing the total cost of the security project to $1.4 million.
The project will add new door-locking and monitoring systems and fix defects in the buildings’ security systems, said John Dipko, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
Gov. Jim Doyle and state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, agreed to the cost increase, but used the moment to vent their frustrations with the long list of Stanley projects.
“We’re so far into the hole, we can’t get out,” Risser said.
State Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, agreed, saying Wisconsin is stuck with the building.
“I don’t know if we can throw up our hands and say, ‘Forget it, we’ll build something new,’” he said. “I don’t know where the tipping point is, and I don’t think we can throw in the towel.
“If the locks aren’t working at a correctional facility, you have to fix them.”
Yet Kaufert said he is just as frustrated as everyone else.
“Every time we look at small projects, or every other time we do, Stanley seems to come up, and we’re throwing another $1 million at it,” he said. “You’d think we’d be getting to that point of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Dipko said DOC understands the frustration of fixing a subpar project Wisconsin did not build, but the state has a responsibility to maintain a safe environment.
“We’re continuing efforts to make this as secure a site as we can,” he said.
Helbach said he thinks the upgrades approved Wednesday should be the last for now, and Wisconsin likely will spend little more money on the prison.
Yet if something else goes wrong, Kaufert said, the state will have to reopen its checkbook.
“We leave it to the experts to tell us what’s needed,” he said. “But you look at it now, and it’s a valuable lesson learned.”