Jan. 22--SHARON -- Local leaders had their game faces on Friday as they developed a strategy on how to save 413 jobs.
Around 20 local politicians along with business and civic leaders met Friday at the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce's Founders Room. The topic: How to keep the state prison in Findley Township open.
Formally called the State Correctional Institution at Mercer, it's on a short list of five in the state facing possible closure. On Dec. 30, Gov. Tom Wolf's office announced a plan to close two prisons in an effort to cut costs from the strained state budget. Also on the list are: Pittsburgh, Waymart, Frackville and Retreat.
A state Senate hearing on the issue is set for Monday. Randy Seitz, CEO of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., Mercer County's lead economic development agency, will give testimony at the hearing along with Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell. A representative from the Mercer County District Attorneys office is also expected to testify.
In deciding which prison will be closed, Seitz said the state will be looking at a number of criteria. Among them: costs of housing inmates, special programs offered and the economic impact a closing would have in a community.
"We're the lowest in costs-per-inmate among the five prisons,'' Seitz said of the Findley Township prison.
He added Mercer County will be taking more economic hits with Sears and Macy's closing their Shenango Valley Mall stores in Hermitage by spring.
"Mercer County still hasn't recovered from all the steel jobs lost in the '80s and '90s,'' Seitz said.
One thing going against the local prison is that it didn't have any unique programs such as job training courses.
Tom Rookey, a Sharon resident and a retired college administrator, was also asked to sit in on the meeting.
While at Buffalo State University, Rookey started a program of college courses for inmates in four area prisons. The selling point of the program was it changed inmate habits.
"The recidivism rate of those in the program was 20 percent. The normal rate for repeat offenders was 65 percent,'' he said.
State Sen. Michele Brooks, R-50 District, Jamestown, said she reviewed financial information provided by the Department of Corrections concerning the Mercer prison.
A number of improvements that the department said were needed, such as road improvements to the prison, have already been completed.
"The original analysis did not reflect that,'' Brooks said.
Other points working in Mercer County's favor is the state previously closed a prison in Lawrence County, she added.
Having two jails in the same general area wouldn't be a good move.
It was clear there are real financial realities coming into play.
Mark Longietti, Hermitage, D-7th District, noted the state's annual budget is facing a hefty shortfall.
In December, Pennsylvania's Independent Fiscal Office said the 2017 budget could balloon to a deficit of $700 million. If the state continues on the same course, the office projects deficits exceeding $3 billion per year.
"In fairness, the budget in Pennsylvania is in bad shape,'' Longietti said. "There are two ways to fix it -- cut costs or increase revenue,'' Longietti said. "And no one wants to raise taxes.''
Another plus given to the Findley Township prison was the state pumped nearly $20 million in improvements at the prison over the past 10 years.
Wolf's office promised a decision by Thursday.
What are the real chances of keeping the local prison open?
The answer among those at the meeting ranged from, "I have great hopes,'' to "I'm not overly optimistic.''
The Herald's website -- www.sharonherald.com -- will have live streaming of Monday's hearing, which begins at 9 a.m.
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