SAM HALL: Thats a big pile of B.S. you smell

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 13, 2007

The smell coming from just north of here is definitely the by-product of a cattle ranch, but not all of it is from the livestock.

Gov. Bob Riley and Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen announced this week that the state will sell five properties under control of the Alabama Correctional Industry. One of those properties is the Farquhar State Ranch.

In a nicely put-on show at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Riley and Allen released numbers that say Farquhar is losing money.

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Furthermore, Riley said the decision to sell the properties had absolutely nothing to do with the gaping $26.6 million budget hole in the Department of Corrections. Instead, said the governor, the money would be used for capital improvements.

My goodness, where to start. How about with a little refresher about Allen&8217;s statewide tour from just less than a year ago?

Last fall, Allen took to the road to talk about where the DOC was and where he planned on taking it.

He was forthright in his assessment. The picture was not pretty, but he had what appeared to be a solid plan with which to deal with the shortcomings.

Among the challenges facing the DOC, Allen listed:

Overcrowding at medium- and high-level security facilities

Personnel shortages, especially correctional officers

Aging and poorly maintained facilities

Soaring healthcare costs for inmates

These problems are not unique to Alabama. Nearly every state in our union is facing the same thing, especially in the realms of overcrowding and rising healthcare costs.

In Alabama, healthcare costs accounted for more than 55 percent of the increase in general funding for the past three years. According to Allen&8217;s data, healthcare costs rose from $44.1 million to $80 million since 2003.

Furthermore, overcrowding is not a problem that is going away any time soon. Judges get re-elected by throwing people in jail and appearing tough on crime, not by releasing offenders into community rehabilitation programs, which in reality are tougher than jail situations in many instances because the demands are high and the requirements are absolute.

To Allen&8217;s credit, at the same time he was spreading the &8220;bad news&8221;, he was telling people about how he planned to fix things.

Among those solutions was a plan to &8220;ramp up Alabama Correctional Industries to pay for repairs&8221; to older facilities and the construction of a new facility. Perhaps his definition of &8220;ramp up&8221; is different than mine. To this writer, ramping up would mean taking the nine production ponds used to grow catfish at Farquhar that are currently offline and putting them into production. To Allen, it must mean selling off the whole shootin&8217; match.

Nowhere in Allen&8217;s plans from last year, which we can only assume were well-researched and painstakingly developed, was the plan to sell off any parts of ACI. Perhaps this idea was conveniently left out because Riley was still seeking re-election, and such a plan would not be met with resounding cheers.

Why no resounding cheers? For one, the men and women who operate Farquhar maintain that the ranch is profitable. Brandon Glover, the Times reporter working this story, obtained financial records from the ranch that back up such a statement.

Furthermore, the economic impact of the ranch reaches further than the profit of the operation. Equipment, parts and supplies used by the ranch are purchased from vendors throughout the Black Belt, a region Riley says he is seeking to help grow. So he proposes killing off an industry for a quick buck?

Speaking of the quick buck, Riley&8217;s claim that the sale of the five ACI properties has nothing to do with the budget shortfall is simply hogwash. His own office said so the day before his press conference.

The two need to get on the same page, because they sound foolish saying the exact opposite of each other on the same day.

That aside, the state still cannot provide reliable financial information that the Farquhar ranch is indeed an &8220;unproductive and money-losing&8221; operation.

In fact, DOC spokesman Brian Corbett told Glover, &8220;When the process started, there weren&8217;t real good, comprehensive accounting records. The things we had were combined together to give us an idea of the financial situation.&8221;

In other words, the state threw together a bunch of incomplete &8212; and possibly inaccurate &8212; numbers to paint the picture they wanted us to see. Funny, though, since a source at the ranch provided us with detailed numbers from the past four years.

We&8217;re not sure why Riley and Allen are dead-set on selling this ranch, putting people out of jobs and harming small businesses who depend on Farquhar as a customer. Perhaps a big Riley donor needs some more hunting land, or perhaps the state just needs a quick fix for some admittedly challenging problems. Perhaps both.

Still, the people of Alabama deserve better. They should understand that Riley and Allen inherited a big problem. It needs to be solved, not patched, which is what this proposal would do. And be assured, this patch is going to have harmful side-effects to the Black Belt economy.

Unless Riley and Allen at least wait until they can provide accurate financial data, this thing stinks worse than the cow patties.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to