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Oversight Committee hears testimony in prison closure

State's decision to close Ojibway was not without consideration of econcomic impact


February 20, 2019

Bryan Hellios/Daily Globe

BRUCE MAHLER, left, police chief for Marenisco and Marenisco Township Supervisor Richard Bouvette share a laugh before their testimony on Tuesday in front of the Michigan Senate Oversight Committee via remote broadcast at the Gogebic Community College.


Ironwood - The Michigan Senate Oversight Committee met Tuesday in Lansing to hear testimony regarding an auditor general's report concerning the Michigan Department of Correction's decision to close the Ojibway Correctional Facility in Marenisco.

The facility, which had 203 employees, closed Dec. 1.

The report - a follow-up to a 2012 performance audit - found the MDOC partially complied with the changes recommended following the 2012 audit.

"(The department of corrections) represented to us that it fully considered the potential economic impacts. However, the DOC could have better established how the information reviewed impacted its recommendation for closure," reads the report issued in December.

While the report acknowledged state law didn't require a written analysis of the economic impact, it encouraged the creation of one in the future as "a good business practice to help foster transparency."

Included in the report is a response from the department, which argues the department provided as much information as required by law and said even the auditors acknowledged the department covered nine separate factors that were part of the process.

Tuesday's hearing was broadcasted via remote access to Gogebic Community College, allowing locals impacted by the closure the ability to share their concerns with the committee.

Marenisco Township Supervisor Richard Bouvette testified before the committee that Gogebic County has the second highest unemployment rate and said he believes it has the second highest poverty rate in the state of Michigan.

His township's economic conditions are not any better and he attributes it to a lack of industry.

"We started off as a lumber mill town, went to a window plant and then to a prison," Bouvette said. "And that has been taken away from us."

He said 20 people from Marenisco were employed at the prison and only a few of them are still working for the MDOC and still living in the township. He said the economic impact to business in his area due to the prison closing is more than $1 million.

"I'm thinking eventually many of those business are going to close because they don't have the $60 million per year that the prison provided," he added.

He said the true economic impact will be felt in the coming months and state did not take that into consideration.

Bruce Mahler, police chief for Marenisco, told the committee that no township officials or business owners were contacted by MDOC prior to the decision to close the prison.

"You would think that if your going to make a decision that is going to impact public safety in an area where your going to leave that you would talk to me," Mahler said.

The prison closing will cause people to move out of the area leaving vacant houses which impacts revenue leading to a decline in the township's ability to provide emergency medical and fire services, he said.

"Wouldn't that be part of an impact study," Mahler said.

Chris Gautz, MDOC public information officer told the Daily Globe he appreciated Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, making the meeting available remotely, so Gogebic County could take part in the meeting.

He also praised the committee for keeping Tuesday's hearing focused on the update to the audit, rather than the larger debate around the prison closure.

While past decisions may have lacked the necessary documentation, Gautz said the department provided close to 1,000 pages of information to the auditors reviewing the Ojibway closure.

Gautz reiterated the department followed the requirements when considering the prison's closure.

"The law stated that we had to fully consider the economic impact and we did that," he said. "The law doesn't say we have to write an economic impact study, it doesn't say we have to produce this or that. It says we have to 'fully consider,' and we did that."

Editor's Note: Daily Globe reporter Richard Jenkins contributed to this story.


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