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Town struggles after closure of prison, its largest employer

Burlington sees population, tax collections drop

DENVER – It’s hard to find a person in Burlington without some connection to the vanilla-brick prison sitting empty at the edge of town, surrounded by barbed-wire fence and exercise yards of yellowed winter grass.

Most of the folks sipping ice tea at the VFW post and the ones visiting the bank along the town’s four-block Main Street either once worked at the prison, know someone who worked there or, at the least, are worried its closure will have long-term effects on Burlington’s roads and schools.

Since Kit Carson Correctional Center closed last summer, the population of Burlington has dropped to about 3,600 from 4,200. Lost wages for the 142 former employees of the prison – the town’s largest employer – are estimated to exceed $2.4 million annually. Of the $12.2 million in taxes collected in Kit Carson County last year, $1.2 million was paid by the prison’s owner, Corrections Corporation of America.

The largest hit to city coffers comes in the loss of the prison’s $619,367 annual utility bill, because the city owns the electrical system and provided water and sewer service to the prison. The prison also paid the city 25 cents per day per inmate, which totaled $65,000 a year.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Mayor Dale Franklin, who owns a plumbing business and has lived in Burlington all of his 64 years. “We always hope the prison is going to open back up.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office has asked for $515,000 for a “Kit Carson mitigation plan” that would backfill a portion of the property taxes lost to Burlington and Kit Carson County because of the closure of the privately run prison. Town leaders are grateful but say that amount isn’t enough to cover even half of this year’s total losses. School board president Pauline Durham is worried about how the loss of tax dollars will affect building repair and teacher salaries in a district that already struggles to retain quality instructors and pay for “unfunded mandates.”

“It’s going to mean some tough decisions for us,” she said, noting the board scheduled a budget session this month to discuss the prison closure. “We’ve talked about murmurs of the prison closing for probably the last three years at our school board meetings.”

The prison’s annual tax bill to the school district was $415,700, and 53 students enrolled last year had parents who worked at the prison. Some of those students already have moved away, although district officials were encouraged that enrollment this year was up by 15 students overall.

Burlington sits alongside Interstate 70 about 30 miles from the Kansas border, in a swath of farmland and windy open space where Colorado towns are battling to survive. Without the prison, the largest employer is Midwest Farms, a hog farm with about 200 employees.

Dozens of others work in the corn and wheat fields, at the hospital, or in welding and equipment repair. The town, a popular overnight stopover for people traveling from Kansas to Colorado’s mountain resorts, has 610 hotel rooms and a Love’s Travel Stop along the interstate.

The prison still will have to pay property taxes, but officials are bracing for a 50 to 60 percent reduction from the tax assessor now that the facility is empty. Harder to estimate is the loss to the local economy now that prison employees who commuted from Kansas no longer do their grocery shopping in Burlington and employees who lived in town no longer rent homes there.

“It’s a real jolt,” said Rol Hudler, the city’s director of economic development and a former mayor and publisher of The Burlington Record. “The prison was the first major firm or facility coming in here to boost our economy. You obviously are going to miss that tremendously, no question about that.”

But Hudler is optimistic, banking on a rise in commodity prices for corn and wheat. “I think we’ll be up and running again,” he said.

The town will weather this, residents say, just as it withstood the exodus of the area’s sugar beet farming two decades ago and the draining in 2011 of Bonny Reservoir, a popular fishing and boating destination.

Lifelong resident Doug Beechley, 56, misses the days when people drove through town towing boats and carrying coolers for a day at the reservoir. He recalls when Burlington had five grocery stores; now it has only a Safeway.

“The biggest thing the government did was allow Bonny Dam to close,” he said. The prison closure is just the latest hardship for his hometown, said Beechley, who can’t wait to get back home when he visits his kids in Denver. He knows the closure is a big deal, though, because he works as a utility meter technician for the city, and the meters for electricity and water are down “big time” since the prisoners were moved out and the workers there lost their jobs. “Money is tight” at the city, he said. Beechley’s brother worked at the prison as a security guard and then a laundry manager up until a few years before it closed.

Kit Carson Correctional Center, one of three private prisons in Colorado run by Corrections Corporation of America, which recently “rebranded” as CoreCivic, was the sixth prison in the state to shut down in the last decade.

As prison populations have declined nationwide because of criminal justice reform, the number of inmates in Colorado’s 20 prisons also has decreased. The Burlington facility was down to 402 inmates when it closed, despite a capacity to hold more than 1,400.

The Legislature already had bailed out the prison once, handing over $9 million in 2012 to keep it open. Lawmakers had budgeted $3 million extra for this fiscal year, but it wasn’t enough and the prison closed anyway, the money never spent. Kit Carson inmates were transferred to the two other CCA-operated prisons in Colorado – in Crowley and Bent counties.

CoreCivic spokesman Jonathan Burns declined to provide any specifics on the empty prison’s future or say whether the company was seeking to lease it to other states. The facility, he said, “could provide needed capacity to a number of potential government partners.”

Judy Fuchs worked at the prison for 17 years, starting in maintenance and rising to quality assurance manager. She hasn’t found a new job despite applying for positions at the hospital, the county, the Marriott and Love’s.

Jobs with health insurance and benefits as good as those offered by the prison are hard to come by.

Conversation at high school ballgames, church on Sunday and over chiles rellenos and omelets at The Post Bar and Grille often turns toward the empty prison, Fuchs said. Some wonder whether President Donald Trump’s promises to get tough on drug crimes and crack down on immigrants living here illegally could jump-start the need for prison cells.

“Everywhere I go,” Fuchs said, “people say, ‘Is that place going up again?’”