CARSON CITY -- Nevada's oldest prison will be allowed to get a bit older.
For the second month in a row, the state Prison Board's Democratic members voted 2-1 Tuesday to block an attempt by Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons to close the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison.
Gibbons had called for the closure to cut spending because of a drop in state tax revenues caused by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.
Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto want legislators sitting on the Interim Finance Committee to use as much as $8.3 million in an emergency fund to exempt correctional officers throughout the state from mandatory one-day-a-month furloughs and keep the prison open.
They asked Corrections Director Howard Skolnik to present such a request, including the amount of money he needs. His request would be reviewed by the state Board of Examiners and later the Interim Finance Committee.
Miller said that an $8.3 million balance in the committee's fund could be used to pay workers to stay on the job, instead of taking furloughs.
If Skolnik does not have to furlough workers, and can fill vacancies he needs to protect staff and the public, then Miller said there will be no need to close the Carson City prison, which houses 657 medium-security inmates.
"There will be a significant public safety detrimental effect if we close Nevada State Prison," Miller said.
In response to reporters' questions, Miller did not explain how security would be affected.
He said he did not believe estimates that closing the old prison could save as much as $3 million a year. Inmates still would have to be moved to other prisons and officers employed to watch them, he said.
He called furloughing prison workers an unacceptable option for public safety. By requiring a furlough of one day a month, the number of employees guarding inmates at any one time is 4.6 percent less than normal, he said.
Contacted in Southern Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, said he was pleased Miller and Masto decided the prison should not be closed.
He said he and other legislators will consider a request to use contingency funds to exempt prison employees from the furlough requirement.
Legislators agreed last year to set aside $4 million to exempt prison workers from furloughs during the fiscal year that ended July 1. More than $1.5 million remains in the fund, which could be used during the current year before tapping contingency funds.
But state Budget Director Andrew Clinger warned that the contingency fund is used to cover unforeseen expenditures such as the cost of fighting wild-land fires.
Funds have been exhausted in previous years for fire suppression.
"That is a big unknown cost," Clinger said.
After the meeting, Skolnik said he "immediately" intends to hire new workers for the Nevada State Prison and bring staffing levels up to a level at which he thinks staff and the public will be safe.
"I can't continue to wait for them to make a decision," Skolnik said.
Gibbons, the only Republican on the Prison Board, made few comments during the meeting and cast the only no vote.
But he challenged statements made by Masto and repeatedly emphasized that by law, Skolnik still can transfer Nevada State Prison inmates to other prisons without the board's approval.
The governor has sought twice to secure legislative approval to close the prison, initially contending closure would save $12 million a year but later dropping that figure to $3 million.
Skolnik told board members that he could improve safety throughout the prison system by transferring Nevada State Prison inmates and the 209 staff members to other prisons. Shortages at other prisons caused by furloughs would be reduced with the arrival of these workers, he added.
He also said no Nevada State Prison workers would be laid off or forced to relocate outside the area because of such a shutdown.
But neither Miller nor Masto responded to his suggestion Tuesday, instead noting he had said previously the prison could stay open if there were no furloughs.
Miller expressed concern that Gibbons still will try without their approval to induce Skolnik to transfer many inmates and close the prison.
"If I want to keep my job," Skolnik said, noting that he might have to follow any order made by Gibbons.
But he pledged not to reduce the prison's staff or unnecessarily transfer inmates to other prisons before the board makes a final decision.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.