The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 9, 2013

SCI-Cresson closing poses financial hardships for town

Kathy Mellott

CRESSON — Workers at NAPA Auto Parts, Sheetz and Nic’s Tobacco in the Cresson business district are lamenting the economic loss posed by the closing of SCI-Cresson.

But it’s much more than an oil filter, a sub or some tobacco, officials said Wednesday as they attempted to evaluate how Cresson Township will make up the loss of wage taxes from the community’s largest employer and the closing of a facility that uses about half the capacity of the water system.

Also impacted will be the sewer system that serves the prison and is operated by Cresson Borough.

“Basically, we’re losing half of our population,” said Scott Decoskey, Cresson Township supervisors board chairman.

Decoskey, Cresson Borough Mayor Patrick Mulhern and others are concerned that the loss of customer base for the water and sewer systems will translate into rate increases for residents.

No one was willing to make any estimates Wednesday.

Word of the closing of SCI-Cresson and SCI-Greensburg emerged Tuesday, and the formal announcement was made Wednesday by John Wetzel, secretary of the state Department of Corrections.

The inmates and the jobs are being shifted to a recently built prison in Benner Township, Centre County, and a facility in Pine Township, Indiana County. A June 30 goal has been set to have the Cresson and Greensburg facilities shut.

Cresson Township has a population of just more than 4,000, a figure that includes about 1,500 prison inmates. That has benefited it financially because the township qualified as an entitlement community and received state Community Development Block Grant funds.

That likely will change, Decoskey said of the money paid to communities with populations of 4,000 or more that meet low- to moderate-income guidelines.

“That’s like $80,000 a year we could count on,” Decoskey said of money used in recent years for water line improvements and handicapped accessibility for a park.

With funding based on the 2010 census, eligibility will be unchanged until a new census is done in 2020, said Larry Custer, executive director of the Cambria County Redevelopment Authority.

“That’s a long way off,” he said.

Yet to be determined is the potential revenue loss, if any, to Cambria County, which for years has housed state inmates when the Cresson facility was full.

In 2012, the county received about $1.2 million from the state for housing Cresson prisoners, but a plan was in the works to change that practice, said John Prebish, Cambria County Prison warden.

“It was coming anyway,” Prebish said of a plan being implemented to have the county prison house local parole violators rather than having them sent back into the state system.

“I don’t know how many I’m going to get, but we are one of eight institutions across the state holding parole violators,” he said.

The state is to save $23 million in the current fiscal year and more in years to come through the closings of the facilities, which are described by officials as antiquated.  

That is of little solace to community leaders and residents such as Jennifer Spielvogle of Loretto.

“The statement that closing SCI-Cresson ‘should save taxpayers money,’ is no comfort to me,” she wrote in an email to The Tribune Democrat’s Readers’ Forum. “Nor should it be to the local business owners and contractors.”

The closing will have a long-term negative economic impact on Cresson and surrounding communities, she wrote.

One area likely to be hit hard is housing, said Karen Merva, wife of SCI-Cresson corrections officer Lee Merva.

She speculated that prison employees, especially younger ones, will move to areas closer to the Benner facility.

“There’s going to be a lot of houses up for sale,” she said. “The impact on this town will be a lot more than people realize.”

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.