Pontiac prison's fate mirrors that of Springfield DOT division
Though he lives almost 100 miles away, Pontiac Mayor Scott McCoy will keep tabs on what happens at a public hearing Thursday on the governor’s proposal to move a Springfield-based Department of Transportation division to southern Illinois.
"We will be monitoring it," he said Tuesday. "We will have somebody there."
The departure of IDOT’s traffic-safety division from Springfield would have little direct impact on Pontiac, but McCoy wants to stay informed because his city faces the prospect of a similar loss.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants to shut down the Pontiac Correctional Center and, in effect, replace it with a new prison at Thomson in northwestern Illinois that never has been fully used. The governor says the two moves would save the state money and boost the economic fortunes of the Thomson and Harrisburg areas.
"The indirect impact (of the potential IDOT move) is if it can happen there, it can happen here," McCoy said.
Under a 2004 law, both proposed moves must go through a review process involving a bipartisan legislative panel, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. By mid- to late September, the commission will issue advisory opinions on whether the IDOT relocation and the prison closure should proceed.
The panel, known as COGFA, will have a public hearing on the IDOT move at 5 p.m. Thursday in the State Capitol. A hearing about the Pontiac prison’s future will be at 5 p.m. Aug. 12 in Pontiac Township High School.
McCoy said "several thousand" people would attend the Pontiac hearing, and they’ll be prepared to debunk a Department of Corrections report that claims closing the Pontiac prison would save more than $4 million a year.
The commission has considered other proposed state facility closures in prior years, but none were as high profile as the ones concerning IDOT and the Pontiac prison, said Dan Long, COGFA executive director.
There are parallels between the two, as well as some differences, according to people familiar with the review process.
"Both of these are going to be very important meetings because they’re the first (major) tests of a new statute," said state Rep. Frank Mautino, a Spring Valley Democrat who serves on COGFA.
Sen. Christine Radogno, a Lemont Republican who also is on the commission, said both proposed closures would be "highly disruptive to the local communities."
"The difference between the two is there’s more jobs at stake with Pontiac, and it’s in a less diverse local economy," she added. "So the impact of Pontiac, I think, is even greater than the impact of the IDOT closure, although that is significant."
About 150 employees would be affected by the IDOT move. The Pontiac prison employs about 570, including Stephanie DeLong’s husband, Kevin.
Stephanie DeLong, a former Pontiac Correctional Center employee, now runs DeLongs’ Casual Dining and Spirits. She described herself as riding on "an emotional roller coaster," not knowing whether the prison will stay open.
The family would have to move if the prison closes, she said Tuesday.
The anxiety has spread to the DeLongs’ five children, including a 7-year-old son who recently woke up crying because he fears he’ll be cut off from his friends.
DeLong said if the family leaves town, she probably would have to shutter her eatery, which has a staff of about 20.
"If my restaurant goes, obviously they’re all going to be out of jobs as well," she said.
Once the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability issues its advisory opinions on the two closures, the governor may follow through with his plans, even if they run counter to the panel’s recommendation.
"After this level of detailed analysis and public input, it would be ill-advised for the administration to go in another direction," said Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, co-chairman of the commission.
Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, said the outcome in the IDOT case wouldn’t necessarily determine the outcome of the Pontiac prison case.
"They’re very similar, but I don’t think the conclusions will necessarily have to be comparable," he said.
Any disputes that linger after the end of the COGFA process could ultimately wind up in a courtroom.
Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or email@example.com.