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LTE - Time to dump prison work crew program

This letter is in regards to the Institution/Community Work Crew program, which consists of six Minnesota prison inmates serving the last 42 months of their sentence in a few northern Minnesota counties, including Becker County.

Many of these minimum-security convicts are not from Minnesota, but come from Chicago, Wisconsin or other places.

The state pays the county about $102,000 per year to house these prisoners. It costs the county about half of that to feed and board the prisoners.

The county pays the state about $114,000 per year for use of these inmates and a carpenter supervisor to build supposedly low-to-moderate income housing.

Such housing was being done privately by local contractors who bid this work (Dan Holsgrove, Nate Weber, Ken Huesman and Bob Gullard, and Rich Grossman, to name a few). These houses were being built for approximately $107 a square foot -- or $118,00 to $130,000 per house.

With the state prison work crew, we must not only pay for the crew and state supervisor (who earns $114,000 per year) we now also have to pay to hire a contractor to use his license at $7,500 per house.

Last year the Becker County I.C.W.C. crew built three houses. We paid the state for the inmate crew $114,000 and a licensed Ottertail contractor $22,500. This amounts to more than $45,000 in labor for each house.

The prison crew's last three houses cost $120 to $125 per square foot or $144,000 to $150,000 per house.

That's $20,000 to $27,000 more per house than it cost private contractors to build.

So what did we accomplish with this prison building program?

We eliminated jobs from county contractors, laborers, carpenters and others.

We drove up house prices. As a result, the county has five "low-income" houses priced at $140,000 to $150,000 that haven't been sold.

The county can't afford to build any more houses until they sell, but it still must pay the state work crew.

Now the county EDA, housing director and sheriff are busy figuring out how they can use the state prison crew to replace other jobs.

If they really think this program works and want to save money, maybe they should eliminate six or seven county jobs with this crew and see how county employees like that. The state started this program to decrease its prison boarding costs. I'm sure that has been accomplished, but the cost to Becker County is in jobs and housing programs.

Reed Erickson, who is with the Department of Employment and Economic Development, agrees 100 percent that the program is no longer working.

It's time for Becker County to quit trying to find jobs for the I.C.W.C. and be more concerned with finding jobs for Becker County residents.

Remember, if this money had been spent on jobs in Becker County, it would have turned over approximately seven times ($137,000 times seven equals $959,000 per year). Now you're talking economic development. Come on, EDA board, think jobs. Let's not continue to go backwards. -- Bob Bristlin, rural Detroit Lakes

(Bob Bristlin is a construction contractor and former Becker County commissioner)