The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

February 2, 2013

Cresson prison closure: Economic impact feared

CRESSON — If Pennsylvania successfully saves the $23 million it is projecting for this year with the closing of two prisons, state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, thinks some of that money has to come back to help the affected communities recover from the significant economic impact.

His hope is that the state will view the loss of more than 500 jobs now at SCI-Cresson as seriously as it would the loss of a private manufacturer closing its doors or moving jobs elsewhere.

A meeting will be held Thursday on the campus of Mount Aloysius in an attempt to get across to the state that something needs to be done from a financial standpoint.

Expected at the meeting are representatives of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Labor and Industry, Department of Corrections and the General Services Administration – the agency responsible for marketing the massive prison facility.

Also on hand will be the Cambria County commissioners, the county planning commission, JARI and representatives of Cresson Township and Cresson Borough – especially their municipal authorities, which supplied sewer and water service to the prison and its 1,500 inmates and 500 employees, Wozniak said.

“The economic engine of this prison is no different than a factory shutting down with 500 jobs,” he said. “I’ve given the department (corrections) and the administration a list of my concerns and they go as far as businesses, sewer and water authorities, the fire company – all permanently impacted.”

Also on the list for closure is SCI-Greensburg.

The June 30 complete shutdown of the Cresson prison has sent shock waves through the community and all of Cambria County, with a significant economic hit anticipated in the Mainline area and extending as far the Richland Township-based Highland Sewer and Water Authority.

Highland, which has extensive lines and tanks through some of the eastern portion of the county, sells water in bulk to the Cresson Township Municipal Authority, which in turn sells water to the prison.

Ed Englehart, Highland’s executive director, told The Tribune-Democrat late last week that his authority, through the township, sells 63 million gallons of water to the prison, generating $150,000 in revenue annually.

The loss of the prison likely will not force Highland to increase its rates to other customers, but it is a loss that will be felt, he said.

“It’s going to be a hit on us,” Englehart said. “I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would be until just recently.”

Still trying to calculate their potential losses, Cresson Township officials are estimating they will have to increase water rates to their residential and business customers by about 10 percent, said Scott Decoskey, supervisor chairman.

“We just don’t know yet. It could be more, it could be a little less,” he said.

The prison accounts for 44 percent of the township’s total water customer base based on usage, according to figures provided by Supervisor Gary Bradley.

The township is in need of a new 300,000 gallon water storage tank, a project with a $1.3 million estimated price tag.

But PENNVEST, concerned about the impact of the prison closing, at a meeting earlier this month delayed acting on a funding request from the municipal authority.

Any anticipated rate hike does not include repayment of the loan needed for the tank, Decoskey said.

The borough also is wrestling with how it will cope with the loss of the prison as its single largest sewer customer.

An inch-thick agreement between the Cresson Municipal Authority, the borough and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, executed in 2010, includes a withdrawal clause if the state pulls out of the agreement prior to all debt being paid.

The state will compensate Cresson by making payments toward the debt spread over a three-year period.

A chart in the agreement calls for monthly payments for the first six months after closing of $2,500; the next six months, $2,100 each month. The schedule continues to decline until it reaches monthly payments of $400 for months 31 to 36.

If the payments are made as spelled out for the full 36 months, the state would pay the authority $53,400.

Still unknown is the future of the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit, a privately owned facility operated by Justice Resource Institute on behalf of the state Department of Welfare and housed on SCI-Cresson grounds.

The unit for violent juvenile offenders will continue to operate at this point, according to spokesman David Ball.

“There is no change in the operation of the facility,” Ball said late last week.

“It is status quo.”

While the impact likely will be significant for the municipal services, concerns are also surfacing over ambulance service and fire protection.

G.F. Stevens, a spokesman for the Cambria Alliance Emergency Medical Services, with headquarters in Cresson, said the prison was a significant source of revenue for the struggling company.

The service makes on average 80 runs a year from the prison to area hospitals.

“There’s no way we can replace that,” Stevens said. “We’ve hired people based on that (run) number.”

The Cresson Volunteer Fire Company likewise is looking toward the potential of the prison property turning into a fire hazard if it sits vacant, said borough Mayor Patrick Mulhern.

“There are real concerns about the buildings at that facility,” he said.Economic impact feared

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