Gov. Tom Wolf asked lawmakers last week to expand kindergarten and reduce gun violence. But unmentioned in the annual budget address is a new, multi-million dollar program to help counties that are losing a state-owned facility.
These facilities, which include prisons or residential centers for people with intellectual disabilities, provide hundreds of jobs to rural Pennsylvania communities.
But they also cost millions of dollars in taxpayer money to keep open. Add the shifting policy winds on disability rights and criminal justice to these fiscal pressures, and these facilities have been the first on the budgetary chopping block.
So far, Wolf has already closed two such facilities — a prison in Pittsburgh and a state center for the intellectually disabled in Berks County. He has also announced plans to close three more, two of which are in Luzerne County.
In a statement, administration spokeswoman Sara Goulet held firm that shutting down the state facilities was fiscally sound and would not jeopardize public safety or wellbeing.
Goulet added that “there is reason for the affected regions to maintain a steady economy,” but that the program “is not intended to be a panacea for any economic impact the closures may have, but rather a transition fund during this extraordinary circumstance.”
The funding, known as the “State Facility Closure Transition Program,” was sparked by Wolf’s talks with legislators near the closing facilities, Goulet added.
Wolf’s budget asked for $5 million for the program. It’s a tiny sliver of the whole proposal — just one-one hundredth of a percent of the $36 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But sometimes, it is the thought that counts, said Deena Kershner, executive director of the Our Town Foundation.
“When these facilities close it definitely has an impact in the community and I think it is great that they are looking into providing assistance, whatever that may be,” Kershner said in an email to the Capital-Star.
Our Town aims to improve the borough of Hamburg — about 20 miles north of Reading in Berks County — “through design, promotion, and economic restructuring.”
Hamburg was home to a state center for the intellectually disabled for 58 years. Wolf ordered its closure in 2017, and it finally shuttered in August 2018.
When the state center closed, sales of, for example, furniture and clothing for residents went with it. That meant sagging margins for mom and pop shops’ in Hamburg, Kershner said.
The borough also hasn’t been able to attract interest in using the now vacant 154-acre campus. Locals have suggested turning the facility into a hospital or housing for veterans, but there hasn’t been interest, Kershner added.
“You need developers that are willing to listen to the desires of the community and who have the ability to rehab these facilities and still turn a profit,” she said.
She suggested that the allocated aid could be “in the form of tax credits for developers who have an interest in acquiring the properties,” including public approval of projects.
Lawmakers have taken notice of the proposal as well. Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, is one of six lawmakers circulating a memo asking their colleagues to support a bill providing aid to communities that have lost a state-owned facility.
The lawmakers hope to “help an at-risk community transition to a stable and perhaps growing post-closure economy.” Aid would be distributed based on “local economic factors such as unemployment rate, median income, and the number of employees at the state facility.”
Luzerne County, part of Baker’s 20th District in northeastern Pennsylvania, will face a tough transition.
In the span of a year, Wolf has announced that he will close both White Haven Center, a home for people with intellectual disabilities about 15 miles east of Hazelton, and SCI-Retreat, a prison 10 miles west of Wilkes-Barre.
Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, previously put the estimated economic impact of the one-two punch at $100 million a year for the county.
The Senate proposal will be more robust than Wolf’s $5 million, Baker said. It will include reinvesting closure savings into the community, as well as prioritizing the communities in existing state economic development programs.
“If the state government is going to be changing their philosophy, at the minimum we have an obligation to help the people and towns with a path forward for progress,” Baker told the Capital-Star.
Receiving recovery dollars would also include mandatory economic planning, involving the state, to build a pathway to prosperity, Baker added.
The state has promised every public employee a new government job if they want one. But sometimes that means a long commute that might be daunting for an elderly employee nearing retirement.
To address that, Baker said she also plans to introduce legislation to let employees of closing public facilities retire early.