The Kewaunee County Board on Tuesday passed a resolution backing a legislative bill that would keep the door open to building a new state prison in the county – but only after adding language that makes it absolutely clear that the board is making no commitments at this stage of the game.
The bill introduced by state Rep. David Steffen calls for selling the 119-year-old Green Bay Correctional Institution and building a new prison either in Brown County or one of the counties that borders Brown – Kewaunee, Calumet, Outagamie, Shawano or Oconto.
The Algoma City Council and Luxemburg Village Board have approved similar resolutions and identifying parcels that could meet the criteria set for the new prison, which would be owned by a private corporation but leased and operated by the state. Because of that arrangement the facility would be subject to local property taxes.
The amendment offered by Supervisor John Mastalir reads that the board is “mindful that siting a prison requires a thorough exploration of the potential financial benefits and of the potential costs, including municipal services, law enforcement, court-related functions and any other issues as they come up.”
Supervisor Donna Thomas asked what would happen if the experiment with a privately owned, publicly run prison fails and the state exercises an option to buy the facility, effectively taking it off the tax rolls.
County Board Chairman Robert Weidner said that Steffen’s bill has a provision that if that were to happen, the state would be obligated to negotiate annual payments to the local municipality equivalent to the amount the prison was paying in property tax.
Supervisor Chuck Wagner said it’s too early in the process simply to say no to the idea.
“I think it’s important that everybody understands that this is a resolution to approve the looking at the possibility of building it here,” Wagner said. “This is not a resolution that says we’re approving it be built here … We’re not doing that yet, OK? We are simply looking into the possibility, whether or not it’s feasible to be done here.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Luxemburg Village President Ken Tebon and Trustee Dan Porath urged the board to approve the resolution.
“I think if you really look at it, it would be good for our county,” Porath said. “And if it doesn’t go to Luxemburg, wherever it goes, it would be good to have in Kewaunee County.”
And Sheriff Matt Joski, who has raised concerns about the impact of the 1,300- to 1,500-inmate state prison on local government services, said he is open to continuing the dialogue.
“This County Board does pursue and look for every opportunity to try to take the interests of the taxpayers and citizens into mind, and this is one of those situations,” Joski said. “I just hope we can strike a good balance and ultimately come to a good conclusion of what will be best for our community.”
With that clarification the board voted 20-0 to approve the resolution.
Weidner reported that Shawano County has submitted two sites in Bonduel as possible sites for the prison, and the town of Lawrence in Brown County may also express interest. Those are in addition to two other Brown County municipalities and one in Calumet County.