SHARON – The state Department of Corrections has proposed closing the Sharon Community Correction Center within 90 days as part of a plan to cut costs.
Shuttering the halfway house, which is at 300 W. State St., along with several others around the state, will help close a $140 million deficit in the DOC’s 2019-2020 budget, according to Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel. Closing the Sharon center will save taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million.
“We expect to be out of the center by December 2019,” said Susan McNaughton, Department of Corrections spokeswoman. “We will have a month-to-month lease until then.”
In addition to closing the Sharon center, the DOC is proposing closing the State Correctional Institution at Retreat in Luzerne County, seven county prison facilities that provide either reentry or parole violator center services and eliminating positions at the DOC’s central office. The total savings is estimated to be $140 million.
McNaughton said the staff of 12 at the Sharon Community Correction Center, who were informed of the closing Thursday morning, make up about 90 percent of the facility’s expenses.
Employees will be relocated to other state facilities in northwestern Pennsylvania, she said. Reentrants will be housed throughout the state system.
The center, known locally as the halfway house, has been a point of contention for the city for several years. Sharon officials were excited to hear the news of the possible closing.
“It’s impeding development, and it attracts people to the area who are not being served well by the state,” said Courtney Saylor, a Sharon city councilwoman. “If they wanted them to be able to walk to work, downtown Sharon is not the place for it. But you’d never see it by the (Grove City) outlets or in Hermitage because people wouldn’t stand for that.”
The United Way of Mercer County owns the historic building on Sharon’s West Hill. The DOC uses it as a transitional site for those who have been released from incarceration and are moving back into the community.
Councilman Bob Lucas said the DOC’s departure is a plus for the city.
“Hopefully the United Way can find another tenant,” Lucas said. “But in the long run, I think it’s better for the city.”
United Way officials have long claimed that the center’s mission of giving parolees the chance to re-integrate into productive citizens is one of the reasons the organization backed the lease with the DOC.
According to tax records, the United Way leases the space to the Department of Corrections for $107,000 a year before expenses.
United Way executive board president William Gathers said the lost lease will impact the non-profit.
“The state was a great tenant,” Gathers said. “Losing them will negatively affect us financially, but it’s an opportunity. We’ll move on and find a new tenant.”
Jim Landino, managing partner of JCL Development in Sharon and an advocate for and an investor in the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, said he will keep an eye out for the United Way’s next tenant.
“The rehabilitation of these folks needs to happen,” Landino said. “Its proximity to downtown was not a good idea. As you start to redevelop the city, certain things can’t be in the downtown corridor or else it will absolutely thwart its efforts.”
Sharon City Manager Bob Fiscus said the city supports plans to close the correction center.
“Since 2017, the city has engaged the DOC and the United Way, presenting our concerns with the specific location of the facility,” Fiscus said. “Its closure will provide Sharon with the opportunity for the historic downtown building to be developed in a way that is consistent with the city’s strategic plan.”
Questions about the halfway house hindering downtown development because it had housed sex offenders first came up in a 2017 city council meeting.
The three sex offenders housed there at the time were immediately removed once the community learned they were there. The DOC said there have been no sex offenders housed there for the past six months, a report confirmed by Sharon Police Department records.
DOC officials said the department would try not to house sex offenders in Sharon, but would not promise they would never be housed there.
“I understand people need a second chance, but that the state couldn’t promise they wouldn’t place sex offenders there next to a school and churches is a problem,” Saylor said.
West Hill Elementary School, First Baptist Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church and First United Methodist Church are within 500 feet of the halfway house.
United Way executive director Jim Micsky said he does not see any conflict between the organization’s mission and allowing parolees to be located on the West Hill.
“The controversy is over and gone. It’s been there since 1979, and I think it’s been part of the community. It’s long before my time that it was originated,” Micsky said. “It’s obviously a large revenue stream for us, and it’s something that the board will discuss.”
Micsky said the money from the correction center lease covers the administrative costs of the United Way. He did not know the exact amount but said it was about 16 percent of the organization’s overall campaign.
“The United Way is doing a tremendous job in the community,” Micsky said. “And we’re going to continue to do that. Its going to be more difficult, but we’ve been through difficult times.”
The United Way is responsible for several school programs, including Success by Six, which is in 11 public schools in the county and in Brookfield. The organization also just received a Pennsylvania Smart Grant to work more with fifth- to eighth-grade students based on new technologies and new STEAM opportunities. The non-profit also just launched a three-week pilot project targeting first-grade student preparedness.
Micsky said he feels the community will step up to help the United Way continue its work.
“These are all programs that our local community needs to support,” he said. “We’re going to need to find more dollars in our community because they ultimately support us.”
McNaughton said the pressure from the city of Sharon did not play a factor in the decision to close the halfway house.
“It was a combination of things,” she said. “We knew the lease was coming up for renewal. It only has a capacity for 34 individuals, and the latest population was 27. Based on all of that, we decided we could just absorb (the tenants and employees) into the Bureau of Community Corrections.”