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No ‘crystal ball’ for Thomson prison

Jobs could pay about $40K, but facility won’t be open anytime soon

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

THOMSON – Looking for a job that will pay about $40,000 to start, with health and pension benefits?

That’s what the federal government plans to offer correctional officers when it opens the long-dormant Thomson prison.

The lockup could have a positive effect on the economically distressed Sauk Valley, where people are increasingly willing to drive longer distances for work.

But the prison won’t open anytime soon. In fact, no money is designated for its operation in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

According to federal pay schedule, correctional officers start at $38,619 to $43,964, depending on their education and experience. (The base pay for state correctional officers is $43,308.) Federal officers must have good credit and be no older than 36 when hired.

Typically, about eight in 10 qualified applicants have bad credit, said Cathi Litcher, the federal Bureau of Prisons employee in charge of activating the prison. To get hired, applicants must present documentation showing that they’re working to improve their credit.

Good credit records, Litcher said, help to reduce the chance that employees will succumb to bribery.

The age requirement doesn’t apply to veterans who meet certain requirements.

Sterling an ‘attractive’ option for employees

More than a decade ago, the state built the Thomson prison, then decided it couldn’t afford to run it. It sought a buyer for years.

Last October, President Barack Obama bypassed Congress and designated “unobligated” money to buy the prison for $165 million.

Officials say the prison will employ 1,100 and have $200 million in annual economic impact.

Thomson, a Carroll County town along the Mississippi River, will obviously be the biggest economic beneficiary of the prison. But because the town, population 590, is so small, an overwhelming majority of employees will likely live out of town.

Fulton, 8 miles south of Thomson, hopes about 100 to 150 employees settle there, which, officials say, will improve the local tax base.

In advertising for positions, the Bureau of Prisons is focusing on the area within a 90-minute drive, an area that easily includes Sterling, Rock Falls and Dixon.

Longer commutes are becoming more common in the Sauk Valley, which in 2001 lost Northwestern Steel & Wire Co., the area’s largest private employer.

From 2000 to 2010, the average commuting time for Sterling residents increased from 15.5 minutes to 17.5 minutes, according to the U.S. Census. For Dixon residents, it went up from 17.1 minutes to 19.2 minutes.

Residents in the western half of Whiteside County, including Morrison, Fulton and Prophetstown, have been driving longer distances for their jobs, according to a 2011 Northern Illinois University study.

In 2009, more than 75 percent of workers from western Whiteside County left the area for their jobs. That was an increase of more than 20 percent from 6 years before.

One of the region’s economic development success stories is Rochelle, which is in Ogle County. It has attracted a number of industries, but most workers travel from elsewhere.

Three-quarters of workers in Rochelle don’t have a local address, and more than half reside outside Ogle County, said Jason Anderson, executive director of the Greater Rochelle Economic Development Corporation.

That might partly be the result of two interstate highways that intersect in Rochelle. Nonetheless, he said, people are willing to drive long distances for jobs.

Anderson said he could see Sterling and Rock Falls benefiting from the prison.

“Sterling and Rock Falls are the center of population in the area,” he said. “You have a pool of people qualified in Sterling and Rock Falls who could take the jobs.”

Sterling City Administrator Scott Shumard said the city would likely be on the “last edge” of potential relocation areas for Thomson employees.

“Based on our schools, parks and other amenities, we think we’ll be an attractive living option for employees,” Shumard said in an email.

But he said a firm opening date would be crucial for area developers to start building new homes.

“Developers aren’t going to be aggressively investing in new housing based on a speculative opening date,” Shumard said. “No less, we certainly have a number of buildable lots, particularly in Greenridge and Tori Pines.”

Combining available lots with some of the rural subdivisions and existing housing stock, he said, the community has the ability to absorb a large number of the employees.

‘If I had a crystal ball ...”

A few weeks ago, the city of Fulton hired a consulting firm, Rumery & Associates, to do an economic assessment to see where the town stands with the expected prison opening.

Fulton City Administrator Randy Balk said his town has enough houses, but probably needs more apartments.

“There are people such as the elderly living in larger homes,” Balk said. “They may be considering downsizing.”

Those homes could be freed up for correctional officers with families, he said.

Last year, Fulton joined with Sterling, Morrison, Rock Island, Moline and East Moline to seek housing grants. Balk sees apartments as a possible result of that partnership.

Litcher, the Bureau of Prisons official, is based in North Carolina, but she knows well the frustration of residents who have heard promises about the prison’s opening for years.

“If I had a crystal ball, I would tell you when it would open,” she said. “I really wish I could tell you.”

She said she doesn’t imagine the federal government will make major upgrades to the maximum-security prison. But she said her agency has been checking the facility for problems.

“We want to make sure everything is safe and in working order,” Litcher said. “Do I know how much it’ll cost? No.”

Soon, two bureau employees, a plumber and an air conditioning technician, will start working at the Thomson facility.

Litcher couldn’t say for sure what types of inmates the prison will house.

“It was built for maximum-security,” she said. “I would think that’s how we will use it.”

About the jobs

Information about jobs that are expected to be offered at Thomson prison:

• Employees must be U.S. citizens. Occasionally, waivers are available for hard-to-fill positions when no qualified U.S. citizens are available.

• Those in law enforcement positions in Bureau of Prisons, which is most employees, must be no older than 36 when they're hired. Exceptions are made for physician assistants, medical officers, dental officers, registered nurses, nurse practitioners and chaplains of some faith traditions. Exceptions also are made for veterans who meet veterans preference requirements.

• Employment with the Bureau of Prisons is subject to satisfactory completion of a background investigation to determine suitability for employment as a law enforcement official. Its scope includes law enforcement and criminal record checks, credit checks, inquiries with previous employers, and personal references.

• Correctional officer positions start out between $38,618 and $43,964, depending on education and experience.

• All vacant positions in the federal government are listed at www.usajobs.gov. For more information about Bureau of Prisons opportunities, go to www.bop.gov/careers or email Cathi Litcher at clitcher@bop.gov.

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