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Employee complaints prompt prison project questions

By James Briggs

The state's Building Commission approved spending nearly $2 million on utility improvements for the Waupun Correctional Institution (above), but Sen. Fred Risser feels a different approach should be taken: "Take a couple sticks of dynamite, matches and blow up Waupun. It's a dungeon. I don't think we should be wasting money on it," he said. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Turnbull)

A Republican lawmaker Wednesday threatened to delay future Department of Corrections construction projects unless the state agency can prove it is acting on feedback from rank-and-file staff members to cut spending.

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, chairman of the state Building Commission’s administrative affairs subcommittee, said DOC employees had complained to several legislators that ideas for cost-cutting measures and project prioritization were falling on deaf ears within the agency.

“The complaints and discussions have been way more than I could ever imagine under ordinary circumstances,” Schultz said. “I don’t want to hold up projects, but I want (Corrections) to understand I am prepared as chairman not to allow things to go forward if members of this committee are not satisfied.”

The Building Commission approved more than $6 million for repairs and maintenance to correctional facilities across the state, but Schultz and Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said the DOC must improve its dialogue with staff members before submitting future proposals.

Gov. Scott Walker has told his department leaders they were responsible for soliciting feedback from employees on how to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse from government spending.

Kevin Reid-Rice, a budget officer for the DOC, said staff members were involved in planning, but acknowledged his agency hadn’t included workers in every step.

“The process where we generate what projects we’re going to look at over the course of the next biennium does involve representatives at a local level meeting with the warden, meeting with the security director,” he said, “to come up with what projects should be looked at.”

The collaboration, though, results in suggestions that far surpass the agency’s budget, Reid-Rice said, adding the agency might not adequately explain to workers why it rejects certain projects.

“We do a process where we determine which are the highest-priority projects, and that is the one section of our process where we realized we don’t have union-represented staff as part of that review process, and that is our fault for not having the unions out there seeing how we’re reviewing that process,” Reid-Rice said. “So, there’s a lack of communication on our part.”

Complaints to the Legislature, though, have been widespread, Schultz said, indicating a larger problem.

“I want to make sure (workers) are substantively involved because something is seriously wrong right now,” Schultz said. “They’re not coming saying the projects aren’t being done fast enough. It’s a consistent stream of, ‘What on Earth are we wasting money doing that for?'”

Reid-Rice, though, said the projects approved Wednesday — mostly electrical repairs and replacement of a freight elevator — were vetted by union staff.

“All these projects, in one way or another, are related to health and safety,” Reid-Rice said. “They’re projects unions have been calling for us to get done for some time.”

Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, had a cost-cutting suggestion of his own. He said the state should not be spending nearly $2 million on utility improvements for the Waupun Correctional Institution, which the Building Commission approved.

“I’ve got a cheaper approach: Take a couple sticks of dynamite, matches and blow up Waupun,” Risser said. “It’s a dungeon. I don’t think we should be wasting money on it. I think Waupun is an obsolete institution, and we treat prisoners there worse than we treat animals in a zoo.”

Walker, Schultz said, is open to the long-term phasing out of Waupun.

But a more immediate concern, Schultz said, is ensuring the DOC complies with Walker’s order to seek employee input on ways to cut wasteful spending.

“I hope people understand this is not partisan,” he said. “It’s something we all want to do.”

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