Originally created 03/10/02

Budget delays opening



The state spent nearly three years working to bring a halfway house for recently paroled prisoners to the Augusta area, and construction on a $2.5 million transition center has been completed since January.

But because of state budget cuts, the state-run corrections center in the Laney-Walker area won't open its doors until May.

The Augusta center is one of several alternative detention facilities statewide that corrections officials have delayed opening so they can save money on operational expenses.

"In the long run, it's just another 60 days," said Michael Light, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Corrections.

The facility's annual operational budget has a price tag of $3.3 million, Mr. Light said.

"Our main thing is to get that center running, though, because it took a while to get everyone in agreement and to get approval," he said.

Although several other centers throughout the state are running behind schedule on construction, Augusta's 200-bed facility was one of the first alternative corrections facilities to get state funds. If not for budget constraints, it could be open and operational in a few weeks, he said.

"We can't control the budget," said Stanley Hawes, the president of the Laney-Walker Neighborhood Association. "Hopefully, it will be utilized, and hopefully, people will benefit."

The one-story cream and beige building is constructed of structural steel on a 2.6-acre piece of property near Walton Way at the corner of Sixth and Taylor streets.

Residents of other neighborhoods made bringing the halfway house to Augusta difficult, but Mr. Hawes and the Laney-Walker neighborhood support having the transition center in their community. They have taken an active role in its design and aesthetics.

The original site plan, approved in September 1999, placed the center on Spring Grove Drive in south Augusta. When residents in the nearby Breeze Hill neighborhood learned of the state's plans, they protested construction, eventually leading state officials to cancel plans for the center in early 2000.

The Augusta Commission made approval even more difficult by passing an ordinance that requires transition centers to apply for a special zoning classification. The local law is designed to make sure residents are notified when controversial facilities are being considered near neighborhoods.

Other proposed locations for the center were shot down: A Phinizy Road site was nixed in April 2000; a Savannah Road site failed to get approval in July of the same year.

And when state corrections officials proposed the Laney-Walker site in fall 2000, residents of the inner-city neighborhood initially protested. After weeks of negotiations, including a trip to a similar facility in Savannah, residents signed on to the plan.

Once open, the center will be staffed 24 hours a day and will serve nonviolent prisoners from the Augusta area with a history of good behavior. Residents, all of whom will be scheduled for parole within six months, will work for local companies and use public transit to travel to and from their jobs.

About 30 people have been hired to staff the facility, with 28 jobs yet to be filled.

Gail McGahee, formerly the deputy warden for administration at the Augusta Medical Prison, has been appointed warden of the new transition center.

TIMELINE

Here's a timeline of how the Augusta transition center came to be in Augusta:

SEPTEMBER 1999: An original site plan is approved that would place the center on Spring Grove Drive at the entrance of south Augusta's Breeze Hill subdivision.

FEBRUARY 2000: After protest from the Breeze Hill neighborhood, the state cancels its agreement with the developer and site plans are thrown out for the Spring Grove Drive location.

APRIL 2000: Efforts to extend city bus service to a Phinizy Road site for the center fail. Access to public transportation is required for a state transition center.

JUNE 2000: The Augusta Commission amends a city zoning ordinance, requiring transition centers to secure a special exception before being approved for construction.

JULY 2000: A proposed site on Savannah Road fails before the Augusta Commission after residents object.

NOVEMBER 2000:Residents protest a proposed site in the Laney-Walker neighborhood, causing commissioners to delay action.

DECEMBER 2000: Residents give the transition center their support after seeing similar facilities in other cities.

JULY 2001: Design on the transition center is complete, and contractors prepare to begin construction.

JANUARY 2002: Construction is complete; fire marshal inspections are still pending.

MARCH 2002: Hiring for the facility begins. The 200-bed facility will be staffed with 58 people.

MAY 2002: The center is scheduled to open two months late in an effort to recoup some operational costs.

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.