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Gainesville Diversion Center falls victim to budget cuts

POSTED: August 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

The Gainesville Diversion Center will close Oct. 1. The Georgia Department of Corrections is shutting the 100-bed facility because of budget constraints.

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The Georgia Department of Corrections has announced the Gainesville Diversion Center will close Oct. 1 due to agency budget constraints.

The 100-bed facility houses adult felons who are transitioning from prison. The centers, originally called "restitution centers," were designed to house offenders nearing the end of their sentence for 90 to 120 days while allowing them to work in paying jobs in the community to pay fines and restitution fees.

The department announced incorrectly on Tuesday the closing of a facility in Athens, which had closed a year earlier. The Gainesville center is located at 1002 Aviation Boulevard in Gainesville.

The announcement was made by corrections commissioner James E. Donald, who said the center cost the state in excess of $1 million per year to operate. A portion of the cost was offset by offender-paid room and board.

Donald said the governor’s requested 3.5 percent budget reduction represents a cut of more than $40 million to his department’s budget.

State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, a vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had not been informed of the closing, but said he would not stand by while it happened.

"It sounds like the governor, the commissioner and I need to sit down and talk," Rogers said. "This is a modern facility right in the middle of my district."

Rogers said many of the residents work in various food service occupations, and local restaurants have become dependent on the labor.

He took aim at Donald, a retired Army general who heads corrections. "He (Donald) is more interested in spending $50 million to move the corrections administration to Forsyth," Rogers said.

The state has acquired the former Tift College campus in the central Georgia town of Forsyth to centralize the prison agency.

The news also came as a surprise to the dean of the Hall County legislative delegation, who was not notified of the closing prior to the public announcement.

"This is the first I’ve heard of it," said state Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain. "Usually, as a courtesy they contact the whole delegation."

Kris Nordholz of Gainesville, a member of the State Board of Corrections, declined to comment, deferring to the corrections department headquarters in Atlanta.

As of Wednesday, the Gainesville center had 79 residents. Corrections department spokeswoman Joan Heath said a majority of the sentences of 90 to 120 days would be completed by the closing date of Oct. 1. No new residents are being accepted.

There are 28 state employees at the center, and Heath said all would be offered a position with the corrections agency.

What eventually would become Gainesville Diversion Center began in 1970 at Melrose Apartments. The center moved to Gold Street in 1971 and was called the Gainesville Treatment Center. It moved to an abandoned motel building on Jesse Jewell Parkway in 1976 and was called the Gainesville Adjustment Center. The name Gainesville Diversion Center was adopted in 1979.

The current building was designed and constructed for a diversion center and opened in 1993.

The announcement comes as Georgia’s sputtering economy and lagging tax collections are forcing legislative leaders to reconsider $700 million in new spending.

State tax collections were down 9.4 percent in June and are off 1.1 percent for the fiscal year. That forced the state to use $600 million in reserves to make ends meet.

Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered most state agencies to plan for a 3.5 percent cut, saving $300 million. It could mean hundreds of new jobs may be cut, and pay raises for 200,000 teachers and other state employees could be at risk.

One budget think tank says the state could face a shortfall of more than $2 billion.

But Mills said that while things are not rosy, he discounts the view of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, calling them "liberal."

The institute is affiliated with Georgia State University and is headed by Alan Essig.

"No elected official from the governor on down has discussed cutting pay raises," said state Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain. "Only a liberal professor who is looking to create news."

Mills said it was "out of turn" to discuss cuts until they are prioritized.

"The governor is looking for state departments to make cuts. The economy is down and revenues are down and just like families who have to tighten their belt so does government."

According to Donald, Georgia has one of the fastest growing prison populations in the nation with 60,000 inmates behind bars. There are 150,000 under felony probation supervision across the state.

"Bigger is better when it comes to the wise use of taxpayer funds," Donald said in a news release. He said the state has more than 100 lockups ranging from 50-bed diversion centers to 2,200-bed prisons and that larger facilities were more cost effective.



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