Even if it never gets beyond the talking stage, the idea of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties buying or in some way taking over the closed private prison in Youngstown reflects the kind of creative thinking local officeholders need to indulge in more often.
With the national economy still sputtering, state and local governments are being forced to adopt new ways of doing things. The challenge is to provide the same level of services that taxpayers have come to expect without increasing taxes. That means finding alternate sources of revenue.
Trumbull County Sheriff Thomas Altiere is attempting to do just that with his suggestion that the three counties take over the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center on Hubbard Road on Youngstown's North Side and contract with the Federal Marshal's Service for federal prisoners.
Recent news stories have spotlighted the federal government's urgent need for prison space. Several weeks ago, U.S. Marshal David Troutman acknowledged that prison overcrowding has become such a major problem that federal inmates from the northern district of Ohio are being moved as far away as Holmes and Ashland counties and Milan, Mich.
The situation has been made all the more difficult because Mahoning and Trumbull counties have had to turn away federal prisoners to avoid overcrowding in the local jails. While the federal government pays top dollar to the counties for the service, Sheriff Altiere and Mahoning County's chief lawman, Randall Wellington, are unwilling to risk a lawsuit by inmates over overcrowding.
From October 2000 to September 2001, Mahoning County received $872,041 from Washington, while last year, Trumbull County earned over $1 million for housing federal prisoners.
In other words, there's money to be made if the facilities are available.
Altiere's has written a letter to the Trumbull County Corrections Board asking it to explore the feasibility of creating a multicounty jail facility.
"I believe active partnerships with the various stakeholders will produce a win-win for the community at large by creating jobs, paying taxes and addressing our inmate incarceration issues," the sheriff wrote.
Given that the owner of the 2,106-bed private prison in Youngstown, Corrections Corporation of America, has expressed a willingness to sell the facility to the federal government, the idea of the three counties putting in a bid does make sense.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has said it needs 12 new facilities to accommodate the growing inmate population, but it has yet to publicly comment on CCA's offer. U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, has taken a personal interest in this matter and has brought federal and company officials together to discuss the future of the NOCC.
It wouldn't hurt for officials of Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties to contact the senator's office to talk about the three local governments taking over the private prison.
More than a year has passed since the Nashville-based CCA closed the prison after the federal government transferred the last of its 1,700 inmates from the facility. The city of Youngstown, which provided an array of incentives to make the project a reality in the 1990s, has been hit hard with the loss of income tax that was paid by hundreds of city residents who worked at the prison.
The time has come to force the issue of the NOCC's future. Altiere's idea deserves more than just a cursory glance.