DENVER — They know the state is out of money, so instead they asked for time.
Officials from Bent County and neighboring communities that would be impacted by the proposed closure of Fort Lyon Correctional Facility asked the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday to keep the prison open for one year in hopes that they could find a new purpose for it.
“We’re not here to stress that the facility should not be closed,” said Jim Rizzuto, a former lawmaker and JBC member, now president of Otero Junior College in La Junta. “What we’re looking for is some time to look at the repurposing of the facility whether it be within the Department of Corrections or some other type of utilization.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed to close Fort Lyon as part of his $570 million budget-balancing package. The JBC ultimately will decide whether to follow the course set by the governor.
Hickenlooper’s budget proposal aims to eliminate about 260 jobs. About 200 of them would be at Fort Lyon.
“The impact on one community is severe,” Rizzuto said.
Bent County Commissioner Bill Long told the JBC that an economic-impact study by an economist from the University of Colorado has been commissioned to study how Bent, Prowers and Otero counties — where the prison’s employees live — would suffer if Fort Lyon closed. It is expected to be complete within the week.
Preliminary projections indicate that if the prison closed, up to one-third of the teachers at the Las Animas elementary school would lose their jobs and the local utility would lose out on about $800,000 annually.
Even though prison employees would be eligible for transfers throughout the state, their homes would be left behind in an economically depressed area where they would be difficult to sell, Long said.
The contingent from Southeastern Colorado also met with Hickenlooper on Tuesday to discuss possible options for the Fort Lyon site.
Hickenlooper late Tuesday confirmed he is working to help find other possible uses for Fort Lyon, but has no timeline for when that could happen.
"There are no easy decisions with the budget this year," the governor said.
Long said conversations are under way between the governor’s office and Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet to potentially establish a hospital or recuperation center for wounded military veterans at Fort Lyon, similar to its use before the federal government donated the site to the state in 2001.
Long said discussions about a veterans’ hospital are the most promising at this early juncture, but other possibilities also are being discussed, including a center for troubled youth and an alcohol and substance abuse treatment center.
The governor’s staff will meet with representatives from the impacted area again in two weeks.
Meanwhile, the JBC will begin figure-setting that could set the course for Fort Lyons’ future.
“We asked for a year because we don’t want to be greedy,” Long said. “Can we have it repurposed in 12 months? The answer to that question is most likely no. Can we have identified a good possibility and have it in the works in 12 months? We very much hope so.”