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Province to close two local jails
By markdalestandard.com
Published: 03/30/2011

The province giveth and taketh away.

While many area farmers were promised "bankability, predictability and stability" with risk management programs in Tuesday's Ontario budget, Owen Sound and Walkerton took big hits with the announcement that both municipalities would lose their jails.

"That's pretty shocking and it could be devastating for our community. That jail employs quite a few people," said David Inglis, the mayor of Brockton.

"It is a shock and there's going to be an impact on our community for sure, so we're going to fight it. We'll talk to provincial officials and make our case known. That's quite a blow to a small community. We've had considerable hits in the past and this is just another one that just doesn't make any sense to us," Inglis said.

"I intend to contact Carol Mitchell in the morning and set up a meeting to talk to her about the implications of the closing."

Mitchell, Ontario's minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, whose Huron-Bruce riding includes Walkerton, did not want to talk about the jail closings. She referred questions about them to Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, who singled her out for praise during his budget speech in the legislature as the driving force behind the risk management programs.

Mitchell was more than happy to talk about those programs, which she called "the most significant transformational made-in-Ontario agricultural program in 25 years."

Duncan announced that the pilot grains and oilseeds program will become permanent and new provincial-producer programs to cover the cattle, hog, sheep and veal sectors, as well as a self-directed program for edible horticulture — fruit and vegetable — producers.

"We haven't seen a made-in-Ontario agricultural program in 25 years, so this was a very big day for our farmers," Mitchell said.

She said she hoped to have the voluntary programs up and running by June despite the refusal by the federal government to become involved.

"The current suite of programs aren't working," Mitchell added. "Multiple negative margin years are not giving farmers what they need."

Her Liberal government has committed $150 million to the risk management programs "but remember, our programs are demand driven. If the demand exceed that we're committed to it," she said.

Paul Johnstone, the president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 224, which represents some 275 government workers in 11 different provincial ministries in Grey and Bruce, is also a jail guard in Owen Sound. He said the city will take about a $3 million a year hit in wages and other spending done locally with the closing of the jail and that Walkerton faces a similar-sized hit.

Johnstone said about 50 people, managers included, are employed at the Owen Sound jail. There are 40 to 45 at Walkerton and while he has been told "everyone will have a job who wants one," no one has said where those jobs might be.

While Duncan said in his speech the province was closing "underutilized jails," Johnstone said the Owen Sound institution, which can house 55 prisoners, has been running at "close to 95% capacity for seven years. Sometimes on weekends we're over capacity" with inmates sleeping on the floor.

The Owen Sound jail opened in 1854 and "we knew we had a facility that should have been closed around the start of the 1900s," Johnstone said. "However, I wish the employer had come to us first like most employers . . . We had to hear about it in the provincial budget or on the web somewhere. Classless move."

"Obviously I'm disappointed to see that particular source of employment leave the city," Owen Sound Mayor Deb Haswell said of the jail closing. The city is also looking at an increase in the cost of ferrying prisoners to and from court hearings and jails that could be much further afield.

"That struck me right off the bat as a potential problem area, so certainly we'll be having those discussions at our police services board and I'm sure council will have something to say about the closing of our jail as well," Haswell said. "It's hitting the city on many levels and most importantly it's hitting the city's residents and those folks who are employed at the facility."

The former Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris announced plans to close the Owen Sound jail in Owen Sound in 1996, a decision that was finally reversed in 2003. "So it certainly isn't a new message although I tend to think this message may be, we'll have to wait and see," Haswell said.

Bill Murdoch, the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound Progressive Conservative MPP, said "it seems crazy" the province is planning to close the jail in Owen Sound.

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