State Finance Council delays decision on Lansing prison project; questions over private contractor persist

The exterior of the Lansing Correctional Center is seen Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Lansing, Kan.

? Gov. Sam Brownback and top legislative leaders agreed Thursday to delay for two weeks a decision on whether to approve a 20-year, $300 million contract to build a new prison facility at Lansing.

In a meeting of the State Finance Council, which is made up of the governor and top leaders from both chambers, Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, made a motion to table the decision until Jan. 18, citing concerns that key details of the proposed contract still have not been finalized.

“I don’t want to have to ask forgiveness for this,” Denning said, noting other major contracts that the Legislature has had to fix, including the once-proposed demolition of the Docking State Office Building. “If I make a bad decision, then I want to own it. But I don’t want to make a decision today until both sides have agreed to the lease buy-back agreement, and I’ve had a chance to look at it.”

Denning was referring to a provision in the contract detailing the terms under which the private prison company selected for the project, CoreCivic, would transfer ownership of the facility back to the state of Kansas at the end of the lease.

The Department of Corrections is proposing to contract with a private prison company, CoreCivic, to build the prison and lease it back to the state after 20 years. The state would still be responsible for staffing and operating the prison, but CoreCivic would be responsible for all maintenance and repairs during the term of the lease.

The plan calls for demolishing the medium security unit at the prison, which was built in the 1980s, and building a new facility that would house both medium and maximum security prisoners, who are now housed in the original prison building that dates back to the Civil War era.

Other members of the committee expressed concerns about the Department of Corrections’ plans to reduce staffing, including mental health counselors, once the new, more modern facility is built.

Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood said the project would save the state about $23 million over the term of the lease, most of which would come from personnel costs. He said it currently takes 682 full-time equivalent employees to staff the prison. He said that could be cut to 371 with a new facility.

That’s because the original 1860s-era building, which houses the maximum security unit, was designed inefficiently by modern standards and thus requires more correctional officers because they don’t have clear lines of sight to monitor an entire cell block, Corrections officials have said.

Norwood said with a new, combined facility, his agency could consolidate things like food service and medical care into a single unit instead of having separate units at each of the two main buildings.

But Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Wichita, who chairs the Senate budget committee, said she was concerned about cutbacks in other areas, including mental health staff, which would be reduced from 53 to 35 positions.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said he was concerned that CoreCivic has been the target of numerous lawsuits in the past, some having to do with inadequate staffing at the private prisons the company runs, as well as a Department of Justice probe into the company’s staffing system.

Norwood said that under the proposed contract, staffing would still be in the hands of the agency, and the Legislature, which approves the agency’s budget. He added that the staffing plan is based on National Institute of Corrections standards and that it had been reviewed by independent corrections experts from Indiana.

“But it’s a similar model, that is that we’re going to be using technology rather than people, and there were concerns expressed by the Department of Justice about that model,” Ward said.

In the budget bill that lawmakers passed last year, a provision was inserted giving the Department of Corrections authority to enter into a lease-purchase contract for a new facility at Lansing, as long as it was reviewed by the Joint Committee on State Building Construction and approved by the State Finance Council. But the plan has been controversial since its inception.

A Legislative Post Audit review last year concluded that the facility could be built at a lower cost by issuing bonds instead of a lease-purchase agreement. The Department of Corrections, however, rejected that idea, saying CoreCivic was able to secure private financing at interest rates competitive with the going rate for state bonds.

In an earlier meeting of the joint building committee, some members suggested the agency should consider other communities for the prison, and open up the site selection process to competitive proposals from different communities, a process the agency has used in the past when building new prisons.

Also at that meeting in November, the committee voted to recommend that the agency start over by soliciting new proposals with a wider array of financing options. Norwood, however, said the agency chose not to follow that recommendation because the joint committee is only set up as an advisory panel.

Brownback said at the end of the meeting that the Finance Council will meet once more in about a week to receive answers to questions that lawmakers still have. Then it will meet again Jan. 18 for an up or down vote on the project.