Published: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 6:16 PM CDT
San Pedro Valley News-Sun
Kim Hammond, mayor of
"My advice to any town considering something like this would be to get everything in writing first,"
Hardin signed off on $27 million in revenue bonds to fund the construction of a 200-bed center that was supposed to house women and children awaiting asylum, deportation or court.
The facility was built in 2007 but remains empty. With nothing in writing, the federal government never agreed to keep illegal immigrants at the facility, and the city has been unable to sign a contract with other agencies to fill it.
One of the key developers involved in the Hardin project was James Parkey, of Texas-based Corplan Corrections.
Parkey has also approached Benson city officials about building a similar detention center near the
Corplan Corrections is promising the creation of 150 jobs and a new revenue stream to the city when federal funds come rolling in to pay a per diem for the immigrant families staying at the 104,000-square-foot facility.
To avoid breaking open meeting laws, the detention center developers have held several meetings with three council members at a time.
Six of the council members have met with them, and Vice Mayor Toney King said he was happy he had to work when the meeting was scheduled because he didn't want to hear the sales pitch.
"The bottom line is, before we jump in we need to do more research and talk to others," he said. "We can't just hear there are going to be more jobs and think this is a good idea. We have to really look at who we are dealing with, and not just jump in and say yes. We have to take baby steps here."
Councilwoman Jo Deen Boncquet, along with several other council members, promised they won't jump into anything without doing more research.
But the prospect of more jobs and city revenue has some council members seeing dollar signs. Mayor Mark Fenn said several times in his first public address regarding the issue on March 8, that a detention center would bring jobs to town.
Boncquet said the facility would bring an added $218,000 a year.
"I want to make it clear that I have not made any real decisions on this proposal and will not until all the research has been done," she said. "But the money is not the only consideration with this proposal. I think it is really premature to really make any other comments regarding this proposal until we have all the information."
Councilman David Lambert said there are a lot of pros and cons in a detention center's coming to Benson.
"The developers have made their initial pitch; now we have to decide how to play ball," he said. "Do we bunt, and take our chances at a slow pace, or swing hard and hang on. There are so many loopholes to fall into if we proceeded too fast. At this time, knowledge is key. So it is difficult to imagine a right or wrong way to go."
Lambert said there is no doubt that the major benefit of such a facility is job creation.
"At the current unemployment rates, the economy has no chance of a full recovery. Any job at the present time is better than the alternative. (Gov. Jan Brewer) has stated the state budget issues have no real end in sight. She seems to be putting all of the state's eggs into one basket ...a one-cent sales tax in May. So how long will unemployment insurance last?"
Councilman Al Sacco was less excited about the proposal.
"I am concerned about this group bowing out before the 20 years is even up," he said. "Then, the prison is going to end up becoming a facility that houses hard criminals. I'm all for creating jobs, but what about security?"
Sacco questioned Corplan Corrections' continuous claims that the 25-acre facility is not a detention center or prison, but instead a family holding center for undocumented immigrants.
Sacco said the salesman stated the chain-link fence is only needed to keep others from entering the facility.
The people in the facility, however, will be held against their will.
Sacco, along with King, was more pessimistic about all the good things Corplan Corrections is promising the city.
"To be honest, I am not on board with it, and I was one that voted against the same thing six years ago," King said.
The same group proposing the current family center tried to bring a 500-bed detention center to Benson six years ago. They proposed building it on State Route 80, but they were defeated by strong opposition from residents.
Sacco said with no guarantees, and this being the same company, there are many questions that have to be answered before he would vote for such a high-stakes proposal.
Councilwoman Lori McGoffin said she had a conflict of interest in discussing the project since Corplan Corrections has offered to contract with her employer, the Medicine Shoppe, to provide residents with pharmaceutical supplies.
McGoffin did say that if Corplan Corrections is a legitimate company that can make good on all their offers, it is a prospect worth considering. If they are not, the city needs to disregard the matter entirely and move on.
For Benson to land the proposed facility, the city will have to sponsor $21 million in high-risk revenue bonds.
Since the city cannot legally fund such a venture, they would appoint a board, similar to that formed when the wastewater treatment facility needed to be expanded.
City Manager Glenn Nichols has already offered the council some insight. Each council member was given a packet that included studies on private companies such as Corplan Corrections' building detention centers in small communities.
The studies show small communities rarely benefit in the end, and the private prisons fail to meet federal standards.
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