Elected officials band together to save jobs

The elected leadership of the area sees a crisis in the announcement of the closure of the correctional facility in Estancia—and they are banding together to create a unified front as they battle to keep those jobs intact.

Barely a week after CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, announced its intention to close the facility in 60 days, the mayors of Estancia, Moriarty, Willard and Mountainair met to discuss working together as part of a “core group” which hopes to keep the facility open. They were joined by Torrance County commissioners and representatives from the Moriarty-Edgewood and Estancia school districts, along with other elected officials.

The closure of the facility will mean the loss of more than 200 jobs, many of which pay twice the minimum wage, and include benefits. Representatives from CoreCivic said last week the company will help those workers relocate to other facilities, or to transition into other jobs.

The major issues raised by the impending closure are the loss of jobs, the loss of gross receipts taxes and other income from the facility, and housing prisoners, as defined by the group.

Next steps include seeking an audience with Gov. Susana Martinez. Estancia Mayor Sylvia Chavez said she has already contacted the governor’s office seeking a meeting, but has had no reply. State Sen. Liz Stefanics said she would work to set up a meeting in cooperation with other legislators, including Rep. Tomas Salazar, who was in attendance Monday, and Rep. Matthew McQueen, who was at another meeting in Galisteo.

A job fair will be hosted by the state representatives of the area will be held Aug. 23 at the Estancia High School gym from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Estancia stands to lose 60 percent of its total budget, according to Chavez, which comes from the facility in the form of utility payments, chiefly water, and gross receipts taxes, or GRT. “I believe the town of Estancia is going to take the biggest impact of them all,” she said Monday. “More than half of our budget will be gone. As a mayor that’s a frightening thought.”

That impact could mean that Estancia no longer can afford a police department. That in turn would place a greater burden on the Torrance County Sheriff’s office.

County sheriffs are responsible for housing prisoners once they are arraigned, said Sheriff Heath White. That means arrests by various law enforcement agencies, including those by State Police and municipal departments, result in prisoners that must be transported to and from jail and court appearances.

White said he has been “working day and night” to put new contracts into place that could mean housing prisoners from one to three hours’ drive away. At a 3-hour drive one way, that transport takes a deputy off the streets for about 7 hours, White said. The sheriff said his department made four arrests on Monday.

Compounding the potential expense, if four deputies were transporting prisoners to Grants, where Torrance County has a contract with another CoreCivic facility, that would then mean calling in deputies during their off time and paying overtime. “God help ’em if they want a vacation,” he said.

Sullivan asked about “overcrowding we always hear about” in Albuquerque facilities, and whether some inmates could be shifted to Estancia, but Patrick Trujillo, an attorney for the Association of Counties who monitors prison populations statewide, said that the Metropolitan Detention Center’s population has dropped from about 2,800 to 1,400 inmates. “They’re not looking for a place,” he said.

Moriarty Mayor Ted Hart pointed to another impact to the area, which is families moving elsewhere in pursuit of jobs. CoreCivic has said, for example, that if it can relocate people within the company it will do so, but those jobs could be out of state.

“We need to concentrate on keeping our workforce here,” Hart said. “It’s hard to recruit businesses if your workforce leaves.”

Hart had harsh words for state government: “The state should find some way to control these corporations. … Let’s start looking out for our rural areas. They’re dissolving. The state is not looking out for us.”

Trujillo said the state is unlikely to be much help due to it’s own budget problems. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” he said.

The Tricounty area has for years been suffering the flight of people into urban areas, an ongoing decline which impacts the school districts as well.

Moriarty-Edgewood School District superintendent Tom Sullivan and school board president Elizabeth Howells were both on hand for Monday’s meeting. Declining student population means less funding; the district has already closed two of its five elementary schools due to declining enrollment.

In Estancia, the school district identified nearly 50 students it thinks could be impacted by the closure, and said that if all of those students were to leave, it would mean the loss of five jobs in the school district as well. That’s according to school board president Elaine Darnell, who was at the meeting with superintendent Joel Shirley.

Willard Mayor Bobby Chavez said to state representatives Stefanics and Salazar, “You people need to get on the ball and push hard and see what you can get done for the town of Estancia. All of us need to get together and be one unit.
Mountainair Mayor Chester Riley said much the same, adding, “Where are you going to put those prisoners? In your hip pocket? We ain’t got the money to hire more help.”

“Failure to plan is a plan for failure,” White said, adding, “We do not have a cushion zone. … What are we going to do when it does close here in 53 days?”

CoreCivic, for its part, said last week that it will keep a skeleton crew at the $43 million Estancia facility, to keep it ready in case circumstances change again.

The company’s financial issues with the Estancia facility have been ongoing for about four years, a CoreCivic official said last week.

In order to be profitable enough to stay open, the facility needs to keep an average population of about 700 inmates, he said. That number has been closer to 500; he said the facility has run at a loss for four years.

There are a few possibilities CoreCivic is exploring, including housing prisoners from Nevada, state prisoners from New Mexico, or inmates from other Marshal districts.

As of last week, there were 635 inmates housed in Estancia, with about 50 of those people incarcerated by Torrance County.

Asked what members of the community can do, CoreCivic’s representatives suggested that the public contact elected officials to let them know what the impact will be.

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