Back in November 2009, then-state Sen. Dan Rutherford suggested to Gov. Pat Quinn that the state should get rid of some essentially unused property.
In particular, Rutherford, who has since moved on to become the state treasurer and is now eyeing a run for governor, said state-owned properties around Pontiac Correctional Center should be sold or given to other groups so they can be used to their fullest extent.
In a letter to the governor, the Chenoa Republican said he would like to see the warden’s home in a residential area of Pontiac sold along with the nearby prison farm, which includes a cabin for the warden.
“If we have an asset that is of no value any longer, we should sell it and put it back on the tax rolls,” Rutherford said.
He never heard a word about his idea from the administration.
Since then, Quinn has launched a massively controversial push to close state facilities around the state.
He’s already shuttered the Tamms Correctional Center, the Murphysboro juvenile detention center and the Jacksonville Developmental Center. Despite alarming levels of overcrowding within the prison system, he’s still angling to close the Dwight Correctional Center.
And what will happen with all of these facilities once they are closed?
No one knows. There’s no plan. They will sit empty and collect dust, like much of the vacant property at the former Lincoln Developmental Center, which was closed more than a decade ago by former Gov. George Ryan.
After former Gov. Rod Blagojevich threatened to close Pontiac Correctional Center, Rutherford and a number of other state lawmakers began calling for some kind of blueprint for dealing with aging state facilities.
For example, all the prisons within the sprawling Illinois Department of Corrections should be assessed for their age, condition and usefulness in order to determine whether old facilities should be closed, new facilities should be built and when all of that might happen.
“This should all be part of a long-term planning process,” Rutherford said.
There currently is no such program in place, which means the fate of towns that rely on prisons and other state facilities for jobs are at the whim of the governor. If a strategic plan was in place, something like the federal military base closure commission, at least communities could begin preparing for cutbacks over longer periods of time.
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Of course, long-term planning has never been a prized commodity in the Capitol, where the politicians are up for re-election every two or four years. Just look at the mess they’ve made of the state’s employee pension system.
Over the past decade, the state has sold just 12 parcels of real estate, ranging from a parking lot in downtown Springfield to mental health centers in Chicago, Elgin and Kankakee.
But smaller places like the warden’s home in Pontiac and the nearby former Pontiac prison farm remain a constant reminder that the state doesn’t appear to pay attention to its assets.
Rutherford had envisioned allowing groups like Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited to use the approximately 500-acre prison farm, which is about half in timber.
Instead, according to Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano, the cabin on the farm is made available to the warden, assistant wardens and deputy directors “as needed.”
Pontiac Warden Randy Pfister has occasionally parked a recreational vehicle on the property. It isn’t clear whether other prison wardens have their own woodsy playgrounds.
Last year, records show the state was considering upgrading the heating system at the cabin. Solano said they wanted to make the facility more energy efficient by switching from electric heat to natural gas.
That project was shelved after “it was determined an unnecessary expenditure as the cabin is typically closed up through the winter months,” Solano said.
That doesn’t mean the property is quiet. Officially, the state sends twice daily patrols to the property to make sure it is secure. Unofficially, there are a number of reports from private citizens that the place becomes a beehive during the fall deer season.
But, said Solano, “There is no one authorized to hunt on the property.”
As Gov. Quinn gets ready to deliver his latest budget speech Wednesday, he is overseeing not an expansion of new state facilities, but an expansion of the state’s list of surplus properties.
Just like an old couple that’s downsizing, it is probably time to start thinking about how to deal with the stuff we don’t need.