Business Journal
April 2010

Progress slow on settling prison medical facility issues

By Craig W. Anderson
Business Journal Writer

Leaders from Stockton, San Joaquin County and the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce continue to press the state for details about a proposed prison health care facility to be built near Stockton.

All three entities joined forces in a lawsuit filed last year against the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation.

The lawsuit was designed to jump start a dialogue with J. Clark Kelso, the federally appointed receiver responsible for overseeing the planned skilled nursing facility. He must determine, among other things, what effects it will have on the area and whether those effects will require mitigation.

Issues still needing clarification include nursing availability, the effect of the families of inmates living in the area and whether the planned facility would draw staff away from area hospitals.

“We’re still going through conferences and hammering away at issues needing mitigation,” said Douglass Wilhoit, Chamber CEO. “We’ve put forth what we feel requires mitigation such as jobs, pollution, traffic and others and what we’ve seen is gamesmanship on the part of the receiver.”

Wilhoit said the attitude on the part of Kelso has been “just trust us, we’ll take care of it. It’s business as usual.”

Stockton, San Joaquin County and the Chamber, according to Wilhoit, continue to play by the rules. “We haven’t said no to this project, we just want to get the best protection that we can.”

The 1,722-bed skilled nursing facility is a huge undertaking. It will cover 1.2 million square feet – 144.2 acres- and provide jobs for 1,136 nurses of every type, as well as 147 physicians, mental health providers and pharmacists; 142 associated medical professionals; 281 executives and administrators; and 139 employees for physical plant management, according to information from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Steve Herum of Herum, Crabtree, in Stockton, who represents the city, county and chamber in the lawsuit, said six settlement meetings have taken place thus far. Herum said progress is being made in dealing with the receiver and working on the issues. “The settlement process continues,” he said, “and I feel the meetings have been productive and constructive.” Herum added, however, that everyone involved “wishes the negotiations were quicker.”

Herum said the process is slow because “a great deal was not known about the facility’s impact on the community. The first meetings determined what we needed to research and quantified the impacts. We have to identify the problems before we can begin to solve them.”

Wilhoit placed some of the blame on Kelso and the Department of Corrections.
“We have been asking for communication with the receiver and the Department of Corrections for two-and-a-half years without success.

Recently, Kelso said the project budget must be reduced by more that $800 million. A number of changes designed to accomplish that goal are contained in four separate bills before state lawmakers.

Attorney David E. Wooten, San Joaquin county counsel, is confident the “specifics of the cuts won’t affect the local process.” He said, negotiations have been progressing in “fits and starts” and that efforts by the receiver to “speak directly to the business community has lead to some confusion.”

Herum agreed that the $800 million budget reduction won’t be an obstacle to the Stockton project, saying “Settlement negotiations such as this have a level of complexity that is unusual due to all the moving parts we must deal with” such as the state, county and local governments, not to mention the receiver and business community, among others.

The lengthy negotiating process has cast doubt on the anticipated August groundbreaking.

Part of the problem, Wilhoit said, is that Kelso refuses to release requested information “despite our attorneys’ doing everything.