Death Penalty Arizona

FILE — In this July 23, 2014, file photo, a fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz. Arizona legislators are moving to tighten the state’s law on capital punishment by eliminating three of the 14 so-called “aggravating factors” than can be the basis for imposing a death sentencing. (AP Photo/File)

FLORENCE — The state is following through on Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to close Arizona State Prison-Florence Complex, with almost half of inmates there transferred out, the Town Council was told Monday.

“We’ve seen a consistent lowering of the numbers at that particular historic complex, and now the North Unit is completely empty,” Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the council. North Unit once held 1,000 inmates within Florence Complex, which held a total of almost 3,600.

Florence officials were stunned by Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement of the closure in his state of the state address in January. Near the end of September, Florence Complex was down to 2,510 inmates and the number continues to decline, Billingsley told the council in his written report. The complex includes historic prison buildings, along with South Unit and East Unit.

The actual savings the state will see from closing the prison are debatable, a statehouse committee was told earlier this year. The closure itself is expected to save the state $60 million per year. But annual costs to house the inmates in private prisons and county jails could be $110 million, leaving the state with a net loss of $50 million a year. However, keeping the aged and neglected Florence Complex in use would cost untold millions in repairs and upgrades.

The loss of jobs and population are expected to be major setbacks for Florence. The loss could mean a $1.3 million direct hit to town services, or about 13% of the town’s total state-shared revenues. The ripple effect could total as much as $2.5 million annually. The town’s sewer utility could lose $650,000 per year, and the remaining ratepayers could be on the hook, the town has said.

The state Department of Corrections had not responded to PinalCentral’s request for comment by late Monday afternoon.

The town continues to work for some new use for the old prison property that will blunt the negative impact on the community, Ben Bitter, the town’s intergovernmental and communications manager, commented by email Tuesday.

“The town continues to advocate for the continued use of the facility wherever possible,” Bitter said. “Should the state choose to ultimately close down the facility, we will continue to push for an adaptive reuse plan that can maximize the economic impact of the facility on the region.

“Talks are ongoing between the town and the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry to ensure that any negative impacts of the closure are mitigated to the maximum extent possible,” Bitter continued. “Nonetheless, the closure of the North Unit was a disappointment to the town, and we hope to meet with the Department in the coming days to determine their short-term and long-term plans for this unique unit.”

Councilwoman Kristen Larsen asked Monday if the town is finally receiving accurate information about Covid-19 infections in local prisons.

Billingsley said the town continues to receive incomplete data, and data that doesn’t jibe with other reports.

“I’m not sure there’s a whole lot the town can do to put pressure on anyone to provide more accurate data,” he said. Billingsley said Bitter is compiling and reporting the data as best he can, and in terms of statewide cases, “it appears that we’re much better off than we were a few weeks ago, and we’re kind-of holding steady in terms of the number of cases as it relates to the number of tests.”

911 system

In other business Monday, Vice Mayor John Anderson said he was troubled by the 911 system going down recently.

Bitter commented afterward that 911 went down for about 45 minutes on Sept. 28. The outage was not just a local problem but affected multiple states, he said.

If Florence’s 911 system fails, its emergency calls are routed through Pinal County. Because the county’s 911 function was out as well, Florence overrode the system to take emergency calls on its non-emergency number.

“From the customer viewpoint, we hope the experience was seamless as these backup redundancies were utilized,” Bitter said.

Billingsley also noted that the town and Pinal County now have the ability to receive text messages to 911, for those who may be unable to place a 911 call. However, Billingsley said texts don’t reveal the caller’s location, so it’s important to include the exact location and nature of the emergency in the text.

He continued that text-to-911 users should avoid “text jargon,” abbreviations, photos and videos, and they should not text 911 while driving.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.