BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – With the recent closure of the John Bennett Unit, as part of statewide budget cuts, the city park board finds itself in a quandry on how to maintain city parks without labor previously provided by offenders.
City Management Analyst John Luna told the Park, Recreation and Docks Board at their regular meeting Wednesday night the city is hard pressed right now to find funds for the labor to keep city parks and cemeteries maintained.
“As you’ve all heard by now they’ve closed the John Bennett Unit here in FM so we won’t have offenders to help mow,” Luna said. “I’m in the process of making contact with private mowing companies to see if they can help us out. I should have a report back for you at the next meeting. We’re in the process of contacting Mount Pleasant (Correctional Facility), recycling center is using them, to see if we can use some of their offenders and they’re in the process of drafting a 28E agreement. There are a lot of unknowns yet.”
Luna said the city’s park department has only two full-time and a part-time employee who won’t be able to keep up with the work.
“Twenty plus inmates and five supervisors were taken from our staff, so you can see we’re gonna be hurting,” Luna said. “Our main focus will be the cemeteries, especially with Memorial Day fast approaching. Last year we had an inmate escape and they were on lockdown for two weeks and we got behind and thank goodness David Hoenig gave us some of his crew at no charge and helped get our cemeteries caught up.”
Board member Mary Ann Gaudette asked Luna what budget there was for that work.
“There is no budget other than what we had for the offenders and supervisors and when you’re talking .50 cents per inmate (per hour) and $9 per supervisor, that doesn’t go to0 far,” Luna said. “We’re doing the best we can to come up with ideas. Some suggestions were to throw it out to the community to see if we can get organizations to step forward, take on a particular park. If people want to mow we can provide the equipment and then at the end of the season we can provide documentation that they can show the time donation and maybe use that on their taxes.
Hopefully our best bet will be to get offenders from Mount Pleasant to at least handle the cemeteries. That will be our main focus.”
Councilman Brian Wright, who serves as the Fort Madison City Council liaison to the board, asked if the Lee County Jail offenders could be used for the labor, but Luna said he didn’t think that was an option.
“People are going to realize how much the offenders did for this community,” Luna said.
When the unit was closed, Mayor Brad Randolph said the city typically budgets $90,000 for guards and offenders annually in the budget, but he predicted at that time the city could be looking at as much as $300,000 in additional wages and benefits if full time employees were to be brought on. He said it would take up to eight full-time positions to fill the gaps left by the elimination of the offender labor from the Bennett unit.