A Kewaunee County Board committee Thursday voted unanimously to advance a resolution endorsing a state prison bill to the full board for consideration.
But it appeared to be one of the most reluctant unanimous votes in the history of unanimity.
The Algoma City Council and Luxemburg Village Board have both passed resolutions in support of Assembly Bill 292 and Senate Bill 228, which would authorize the sale of the aging Green Bay Correctional Institution and replace it with a new prison either in Brown County or an adjacent county.
The plan is for the state to contract with a private corporation to build the facility, which would then be leased back to the state. As a private property the prison would be added to the tax rolls of the municipality where it is built, but its operation would be staffed by state employees as part of the Department of Corrections.
There has been much speculation that the arrangement could benefit Kewaunee County, which took a major financial hit when the Kewaunee Power Station nuclear plant closed in 2013. Hundreds of jobs were lost, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual utility fees are being phased out. The County Board has established a local sales tax and made a variety of budget cuts to make up for the lost revenues.
County Board Chairman Robert Weidner has repeatedly said that he neither supports nor opposes the idea of a prison in the county, but he pressed the Personnel, Advisory and Legislative Committee to pass the resolution, which says the county “welcomes the exploration and consideration of Kewaunee County as a site for a new correctional facility.”
“The resolution before us today really doesn’t require us to do anything,” Weidner said. “We are just saying we want to hold a place in line until we decide that, yes, we want to keep pursuing it or we’ve heard enough and it’s not for us.”
Weidner said in addition to the two municipalities in Kewaunee County, two Brown County municipalities and one in Calumet County have expressed an interest so far. Oconto County is not interested, and Outagamie County has not yet responded, he said.
Jennifer Brown, executive director of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp., appeared before the committee at Weidner’s request to share a fact sheet that she prepared for discussion purposes at a recent KCEDC board meeting.
“From an economic development perspective, we wanted to make sure folks understood and talked about around our table what are some of the potential positive economic impacts from a prison location,” Brown said, “but I put a lot of unknown in this scenario, just because we don’t know at this point, and I think there’s a lot more to learn.”
In addition to the property tax boost, the positives include an increase in construction jobs and additional public sector employment opportunities, Brown said. But she also stressed that the prison would be a relocation of existing jobs, not an influx of new jobs.
Department heads led by Sheriff Matt Joski expressed their concern about the potential impact a 1,300- to 1,500-bed state prison could have on county services.
“We had a very spirited department heads meeting recently where a lot of things were brought up, including from the judge himself, who says he is fairly assured that we would have to add another judge to our circuit court,” Joski said. Speaking with their counterparts in Brown County, he said, they have heard that the prison population is “a very high-maintenance community” that will put a stress on county services.
“I hear a lot that is speculative in the form of what we might have happen in the form of housing or jobs,” Joski said, “but I think we also have to make another column of things that we know will happen, and the majority of the things we know will happen are going to be on the negative.”
The workload for courts and the district attorney’s office would increase drastically, said Rebecca Deterville, clerk of circuit court.
“The types of filing that inmates do have strict timelines which are going to consume the judge’s time,” Deterville said. “There’s not enough time for everything to be handled by one person, so there’s definitely going to be a need for increased staff.”
After about a half-hour of discussion, Supervisor John Mastalir made a motion to send the resolution to the full County Board, but none of the other six supervisors present seconded the motion.
Finally, Weidner himself seconded it and spent another 10 minutes lobbying the committee to move the issue forward.
“We heard enough negative things today to know that this is probably not something we should even be exploring,” Supervisor Larry Kirchman said.
“This (resolution) does not bind us to any future action,” Weidner countered. “All it’s saying is we’re open to discuss it.”
He noted that the village of Allouez has negotiated payments from the state to cover water and sewer and other services, so there would be potential to recover the added expenses.
Weidner asked if the supervisors would be as reticent if a corporation like Georgia-Pacific were involved instead.
“You can’t have a major development with no negatives,” he said.
When it came time for a vote, Weidner asked for a show of hands, and when not every hand was raised, he added, “And I would like it to be unanimous.”
“Unanimous with a big question mark,” Supervisor Kaye Shillin said as she raised her hand.
“I would prefer to talk to my board,” said Supervisor Scott Jahnke, who is also the Montpelier town chairman, but he also put his hand up.
The matter will be on the agenda when the full County Board meets beginning at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the County Administrative Center, 810 Lincoln St., Kewaunee. The meeting always begins with a citizens input opportunity where people may address the board for up to three minutes, with a total of 20 minutes allocated per meeting.