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Obama's budget contains $49.4 million for Mendota federal prison

WASHINGTON — A long-delayed federal prison in the economically troubled town of Mendota will be equipped starting next February with the help of $49.4 million in the Obama administration's proposed new budget.

Local residents say it's about time.

"This is something we've been waiting for," Mendota Mayor Robert Silva said in a telephone interview Monday. "This is going to mean a lot for our community."

The funding for Federal Correctional Institution Mendota is part of a $105 million package included within the Bureau of Prisons' proposed fiscal 2010 budget. The $105 million would be split more or less equally between Mendota and another new facility in West Virginia.

Construction is still underway on the 960-acre, 1,152-bed Mendota prison, located several miles west of the Fresno County town. The $49.4 million in so-called activation funding will pay for everything else that's needed.

"(It) would be used to support the hiring of staff, the purchase of furniture and equipment, and obtaining all vehicles necessary to safely patrol and accommodate the needs of a new institution," Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Felicia Ponce said.

The prison would also open next year, though a formal opening date has not yet been set.

With total completion costs now approximately a quarter of a billion dollars, the Mendota prison is far more expensive than originally estimated. It is also smaller. The Bureau of Prisons dropped earlier plans for an accompanying minimum-security camp and associated prison-industry facility.

Stop-and-start funding and a rise in material costs delayed completion and contributed to a final price tag that's 45 percent above original estimates, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office reported last year. Restoring the minimum-security camp and prison-industry facilities would add about $33 million to the total cost, the Bureau of Prisons estimates.

The medium-security Mendota prison that remains will employ roughly 350 workers. While upward of half of the workers may be brought in from other federal facilities, the prison's job potential has attracted many local allies in a town where the current unemployment rate is a staggering 41 percent.

"It's not a total cure-all for the community, but we will benefit," Silva said.

With pay incentives, designed to help the federal facility compete with higher-paying state prison jobs, guard salaries will start at about $44,000 a year, the Bureau of Prisons estimates.

In addition to direct employment benefits, Silva said area vendors will gain business by selling food and supplies to the prison once it opens. The Mendota facility should have an annual operating budget of between $15 million and $25 million, congressional offices have been told.

On Capitol Hill, the Mendota prison has its champions. The city of Mendota this year has paid $10,000 to the lobbying firm DPV Solutions to help secure final funding, lobbying records show.

Two years ago, lawmakers including Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno, had to lean on the Bush administration to secure final construction funding. In January, Costa met again with top Bureau of Prisons officials to press for the final activation money.

"This is a step in the right direction," Costa's press secretary, Bret Rumbeck, said of the administration's budget request.

The prison funding still must be approved by Congress, following release of the Obama administration's 2010 budget late last week. Rumbeck said he is not aware of any opposition.