Of the Baker City Herald

Baker City's minimum-security prison could close next spring.

The Powder River Correctional Facility, which houses 178 inmates and employs 70 workers, was added Friday to a list of state prisons that might be shut down next spring to balance the state's budget, Powder River Superintendent Dan Johnson said.

Less than a month ago, Powder River was left off a similar list.

Johnson said the Baker City prison was added to the closure list, along with Mill Creek Correctional Facility in Salem, as the Oregon Department of Corrections prepares to pare as much as $28 million from its budget in less than half a year.

Powder River's annual budget is about $6.6 million, which includes payroll and all other operating expenses, according to the Corrections Department.

Many of the prison's employees live in Baker City. And the prison itself contributes to Baker City's bottom line: in the past 12 months, Powder River's sewer and water bills have totaled $16,500.

Powder River's only likely savior is the proposed state income tax increase that voters will decide on in January. But even if voters approve that measure there's no guarantee Powder River would be spared, Johnson said.

If voters reject the tax hike, Powder River probably would close, he said.

If the tax measure fails, the Department of Corrections would have to reduce spending by $28 million before the state's current two-year budget cycle ends June 30, 2003, Johnson said.

Last month's closure list was based on a deeper cut $43 million but spread it over almost an entire year rather than several months, he said.

Under that scenario the Corrections Department predicted it could cut the required amount without closing the Powder River and Mill Creek prisons, Johnson said.

The September closure list included seven prisons, but only one east of the Cascades the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.

For the new list, officials removed one facility, the Shutter Creek Forest Camp near North Bend, and added two Powder River and Mill Creek.

Mill Creek is the larger of the two, with 303 inmates.

Johnson, who is in his second stint as Powder River's superintendent, said he was not surprised by Friday's announcement.

andquot;This is not the first time Powder River has been considered for closure,andquot; he said. andquot;The potential for this existed at the beginning of the current biennium.andquot;

However, Johnson said the state's budget dilemma is considerably worse now than it was then, making the possibility of Powder River's closure seem andquot;more serious.andquot;

Johnson said he has started preparing a closure plan for Powder River.

Inmates would either be transferred to other prisons, or, if the Legislature changes release guidelines, some could be released early, Johnson said.

Of Powder River's 70 employees, the approximately 40 who are represented by unions have seniority and other rights, and possibly could be assigned to either Two Rivers Correctional Facility in Umatilla or the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, he said.

That probably would not be an option for the 30 or so other workers.

That total includes 17 employees from New Directions Northwest Inc., a Baker City non-profit that operates the alcohol and drug treatment program at Powder River.

Oregon's budget dilemma will not halt construction on the new buildings at Powder River that are supposed to house the 72 new inmates scheduled to arrive at the prison between June and October of 2003, Johnson said.

Construction money was already allocated for Powder River.

However, Johnson said the prison's position on the closure list creates the possibility that those brand-new buildings will stand empty and silent as soon as the last contractor's hammer has driven the final nail.

Powder River opened in the fall of 1989.

Johnson was the prison's first superintendent, serving until August 1994, when he transferred to the Snake River Correctional Institution.

Johnson returned as Powder River's superintendent in September 1998.