Rifle prison gets reprieve from governor

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RBC — Northwest Colorado, with concerns about the slowdown in oil and gas activity, received some good economic news last week with the announcement the Rifle Correctional Center would remain open.
“I knew it was important to the citizens there,” said Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, who was instrumental in pushing to keep the minimum-security prison open. “Honestly, with the things going on in the gas patch, it was more important than ever to have some employment diversity in the Piceance Basin. It didn’t make sense to me to take some portion of that diversity and shut it down.”
The state had proposed closing the 192-bed facility as part of the governor’s budget cuts.
White, who serves on the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, negotiated with the governor’s office to keep open the prison, which employs nearly 60 people.
“I was glad we were able to work together and make that happen,” White said. “It was certainly a regional employment issue that’s important to the area.”
David Scherbarth of Meeker is associate warden at the facility, which is the highest position at the prison. He has been at the Rifle facility since December 2005. Faced with being reassigned and having to move his family, Scherbarth and his staff were relieved to receive the news the prison would remain open.
“The last three or four weeks have been an emotional roller-coaster,” Scherbarth said. “It has been so up and down. Closing the prison would have had a very adverse effect on the staff. They would have been offered jobs (at other correctional facilities), but a lot of them would have stayed, because they couldn’t leave, either because their spouse has a good job, or they wouldn’t have been able to sell their house in a flat market.”
Scherbarth’s family was happy to hear the news the governor had reversed his decision to close the facility. Scherbarth and his wife, Sandy, have four school-age children.
“I can tell you, were were happy,” Scherbarth said. “I’m even more happy for the families (of prison staff) who would have been adversely affected.”
Residents of Rio Blanco County made their views known to state legislators that they wanted the prison to remain open, Scherbarth said.
“Rio Blanco County was well represented in the number of e-mails about closing the facility, and not just Meeker, but Rangely,” Scherbarth said. “I’d like to thank people for their concern. They realize the benefit to the community. You can get a feeling a helplessness in a situation like this, but when the community as a whole voiced its concern, it shows the system still works.”
While the prison’s future was hanging in the balance, White was working behind the scenes with the governor’s office to try to keep the facility open. White’s efforts received praise from Senate Republican Leader Josh Penry of Grand Junction.
“Al White stuck to his guns when negotiating with the governor on this one, and it’s the good people of Rifle and the western slope who came out the winners,” Penry said in a statement.
White said his role on the Joint Budget Committee was “a position of leverage for northwest Colorado.”
Another fellow Republican, Randy Baumgardner of Sulphur Springs, also said keeping the prison open was the right move.
“Losing the facility would have been a devastating blow to the people of Rifle, particularly when so many jobs are already leaving as rig after rig shut down,” Baumgardner said.