MILTON — A costly symbol of Florida's budget crisis stands on a dusty country road in the Panhandle: a nearly completed private prison that cost the state $113 million and remains idle two years later.
The fate of the empty complex is now the subject of an intense political fight in the Capitol.
The lawmaker who writes the Senate budget says opening Blackwater River Correctional Institution in Milton will save the state millions of dollars.
But opening privately run Blackwater could force the closing of two state prisons. And the influential labor union for correctional officers says 639 guards would lose their jobs during a time of record unemployment.
Gov. Charlie Crist said he doesn't oppose private prisons, but he doesn't want to lay off state workers. "I want to do everything to protect jobs, jobs, jobs," he said Tuesday.
Crist said he's also concerned about the total Senate budget plan, which would cut $100 million total in salaries from the Department of Corrections. Crist and Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil say it could eliminate 2,500 positions and put the system over capacity, triggering the early release of inmates.
"First and foremost, I want to make sure no prisoners are released," Crist said Tuesday.
In 2007, with the inmate population growing, the Legislature authorized building Blackwater. The GEO Group, a private prison operator in Boca Raton, won a competitively bid contract to run the facility, designated for inmates with mental health problems.
Three years later, the prison is nearly finished and the private company wants inmates, but the population has stabilized, and is only expected to increase slowly next year. So Blackwater is beginning to look like a very expensive white elephant.
Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate's chief budget writer, says opening Blackwater and closing a comparable number of state-run beds would save about $20 million a year by eliminating several hundred state jobs at "inefficient" state-run prisons. He added a budget amendment last week to do just that.
"It's a difficult decision, without a doubt, because it will displace some corrections officers,'' Alexander said. "But we've got a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility, and if we don't use it, we're wasting money."
His stance puts him at odds with the influential union for the guards, the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which has endorsed Crist's U.S. Senate bid.
Alexander's last-minute push would close two prisons to help fill Blackwater and require the agency to privatize a third. With the department budget cuts, the agency says it would have to shut two more prisons, though they have not been identified.
McNeil disputes Alexander's figures. An agency analysis showed that it takes "inflated" inmate costs to reach his $20 million savings. McNeil suggested the savings would be more like $3 million. "I have no problem whatsoever with privatization if it makes good sense for the citizens of the state of Florida and if it saves us significant money," he said. "But I haven't seen that business case."
McNeil proposed delaying the opening a year, just as his agency did for five other prisons under construction when the inmate population didn't meet expectations. If it must open, he would rather reduce capacity at several other prisons by closing 17 dormitories, to minimize the number of job losses.
Meanwhile, the correction officers' union is doing all it can to discredit the project.
Florida PBA director David Murrell noted that former Rep. Ray Sansom, the disgraced ex-speaker facing a theft charge , sponsored a 2007 amendment to move the prison to Milton from Jackson County. At the time, Sansom was House budget chairman, a member of the TEAM Santa Rosa economic development group and worked for an Alabama electric co-op that sold power in the Florida Panhandle.
"Sansom … proposed a private prison for a private company," Murrell said. "They built this prison on spec, hoping the inmates would come. They didn't."
Prisons are an economic lifeline for North Florida, and Santa Rosa County, just east of Pensacola, desperately wants the new prison to open. "A project bringing more than 450 jobs and an annual $23.6 million in salaries to Santa Rosa County is an economic development win," said Ferd Salomon, head of the county's economic development council..
At the prison site just off U.S. 90, heavy trucks rumble in and out of the project site all day long, preparing for a July opening that may or may not occur.
Inside a construction trailer, Jeffrey Hughes, 56, was asking about a job. A retired New York state correctional officer, he moved to the town of Bagdad recently and works as a security guard. He is eager to supplement his New York pension with a job at a new prison. "This could launch me on a second career," Hughes said. He voiced confusion over why Florida would spend so much on a prison, then refuse to open it.
Alexander has the same question of Senate colleagues who lack enthusiasm about any plan that would eliminate state jobs. "Do you want to spend $20 million to stay with the status quo?" he asked. "It's just a question of where your priorities are."
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.