Thursday, May 15, 2003

Guards' union delays closing of prison in Lima

Extension estimated to cost Ohio $7M

By John Seewer
The Associated Press

LIMA, Ohio - A northwest Ohio prison probably will remain open until October, costing the state about $7 million it didn't expect, a prisons spokesman said Wednesday.

The state set a new, preliminary closing date for Lima Correctional Institution after agreeing to negotiations with prison guards over procedures for the shutdown, said Andrea Dean, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The previous closing date was July 1.

The union representing guards at the prison sued to stop the closing, arguing that prison officials violated the labor contract by not negotiating the decision.

Lawyers for the state met with union attorneys Wednesday and decided to begin talks next week. Because of the agreed upon timeline for the discussions, the closing would be pushed back to the first week of October, Dean said.

The state says keeping the prison open past its scheduled closing date will cost $78,000 a day, or $7 million from July through September, money that is not set aside in the budget.

Gov. Bob Taft in January ordered the prison to be closed this summer to save $25 million a year and ensure the state's finances remain in the black.

Attorney General Jim Petro estimates that a one-month delay could cost Ohioans at least $2.4 million; a two-month delay, almost $5 million.

Allen County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Reed's order to halt laying off workers and moving out inmates from the prison will continue during the negotiations.

More than 850 of the medium-security prison's 1,565 inmates had been transferred to other institutions in recent weeks.

The union's lawsuit said the state never negotiated its decision to close the prison, to reassign some guards and to lay off other guards.

"We consider this a big victory," said Peter Wray, spokesman of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. "They have to sit down and talk to us."

He said it still will be an uphill battle to stop the closing.

The parties agreed to the negotiations while meeting privately, and Reed approved the talks. Attorneys for the state would not comment at the courthouse.

The suit names the prison system, the state Office of Collective Bargaining and the Lima warden.

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