November 22, 2011WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Androscoggin Valley and all of Coös County have one more thing to be grateful for on Thanksgiving. Funding is now in place to open the federal prison in Berlin.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen had announced on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 16, that by this weekend the Berlin Prison would get the funds it needs to open. And her prediction proved correct.
Senate and House negotiators had reached a conference committee agreement on the 2012 Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill as part of a Continuing Resolution that had to pass in order to avoid a government shutdown that would have gone into effect at midnight on Friday.
Because of action in the House and Senate, President Barack Obama was able to sign the bill on Friday to avert that possibility.
The bill that passed includes $6.5 billion for the federal Bureau of Prisons. It specifically prioritizes funding for the three prisons across the nation — including the Berlin Prison — that whose construction had been completed but needed funding to open. That is the specific provision for which Rep. Charlie Bass claims credit. In a Thursday afternoon telephone interview, Bass exuberantly pointed out that Sen. Shaheen had incorporated the same language into the bill's Senate version. This kind of mutual effort is characteristic of how New Hampshire's delegation works across the aisle, he said. Bass is a Republican, Shaheen a Democrat.
"This is very, very good news for the North Country and New Hampshire," Shaheen said. "By creating more than 300 jobs, the Berlin Prison will provide a $40 million economic boost to a community that really needs it. Once the bill passes, the Bureau will begin the hiring process within weeks."
"I am glad the Congress is coming together in a bipartisan way to pass this bill and get people back to work in New Hampshire," Shaheen said in a press release.
Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, a Democrat fresh off a successful mayoral campaign for another term, said: "I am very happy about the future of Berlin; there is definitely a positive feeling in our city now, and Sen. Shaheen really helped create this headwind." He credited the efforts of both Shaheen and Bass, pointing out that their help on a number of Berlin and North Country projects had played a huge role.
Previously, the mayor had joined other local officials, both elected and appointed, in criticizing Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte for not supporting the 2012 Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill.
Bass, speaking on the House floor when the bill was being debated on Thursday afternoon, credited Mayor Grenier for his dogged determination in securing funding for the federal prison.
He also thanked Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican of Virginia who chairs the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations (CJS) subcommittee, for his willingness to entertain specific legislation to fund opening up three unopened federal prisons, including the one in Berlin.
Bass said that he had worked on Berlin and Androscoggin Valley issues for some 16 years, the bulk of the time as congressman from the Second Congressional District.
"This is great news," Bass said in a Thursday afternoon telephone interview. "I think that good things lie ahead for Berlin, with the possibility of bringing diversified industries that can take advantage of the hot water produced by the Berlin Station biomass plant plus the available land on the east side of the Androscoggin River," he explained.
The 1,280-bed men's medium-security federal facility on the East Side of Berlin was completed in 2010 at a total cost of $276 million.
Federal medium-security prisons are now 51 percent overcrowded, and the Bureau of Prisons needs the new prison to address safety concerns associated with overcrowding.
Shaheen has pushed to open the prison since the needed funding became at risk. She spoke on the Senate floor last month in support of the appropriations bill and the Berlin Prison, and she also appeared on both NBC "Nightly News" and the "Today Show" to draw attention to the issue. The "Today Show" segment was filmed in Berlin and included Main Street scenes, shots of the prison itself on the city's east side, and a sit-down interview with capitol reporter Kelly O'Donnell at the Dairy Bar, north of downtown.
Sen. Shaheen also answered questions about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The senator said that she still has no good news to report and remains uncertain about whether or not more funds will be secured. Shaheen said she is one of 34 senators who asked that the same level of funding that was available in 2011 be in place for 2012. DHHS has asked for about half the funding that was available last year, even though the price of fuel oil is expected to rise by 10 percent, Shaheen explained. It looks as though the budget picture will be clearer by year's end, the senator said.