Guam Congress Building

The Guam Congress Building is shown on Aug. 30, 2021.

HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — Lawmakers on Monday night voted to approve two pieces of legislation that would pave the way for funding massive upgrades to the island's prison and a $1 billion government hospital and related health care facilities.

On Monday morning, the Committee of the Whole discussed three measures — Bills 121-36, 130-36 and 153-36.

The first two, respectively, comprise a financing bill for an $800 million new hospital and related health care facilities and a payment bill for World War II reparations claimants who missed the deadline to file under the Guam World War II Loyalty Recognition Act. These were discussed last week.

The remaining measure, Bill 153, is similar to Bill 121, and is a financing measure for the construction of a new prison facility. Lawmakers completed discussions and amendments on Bill 153 Monday morning.

All three measures passed.

It was only recently that Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero approved the long-awaited facilities master plan for the Department of Corrections. The plan proposes several upgrades to the prison facility using their existing land. The upgrades are to take place in 10 phases over 80 years.

The most significant phase is the first, which covers the foundation of the new facility and includes major infrastructure improvements.

First two phases of prison upgrades: $109M

Like Bill 121, Bill 153 authorizes a lease-back arrangement to construct the new prison facility, and identifies $5 million from anticipated Earned Income Tax Credit reimbursements in fiscal 2022 and $5 million through annual General Fund appropriations thereafter to pay rental payments under the lease-back, as well as allowing the use of federal funds and other financing sources.

The bill would fund about $80 million, according to Speaker Therese Terlaje, who also stated that the first two phases would cost about $109 million.

The plan for the modern health care complex — with an estimated price tag of $1 billion after the cost of public health facilities and a new mental health center are factored in — is to fund it in part with $300 million from the federal government under the American Rescue Plan. The plan for the new prison doesn't have a direct funding source similar to ARP. And with funding gaps still present, Terlaje said she wanted to see a more concrete roadmap of where that additional funding will come from.

Prison upgrades plan spans 80 years

But Edward Birn, the director of the Department of Administration, noted that the prison master plan spans 80 years.

"I'm sure there are many decisions that future legislators are going to have to take during the course of that time period. But that shouldn't stop us from planning ahead," he added, noting that it is likely the new facility will reduce operating costs, particularly in overtime, and some of those savings may be utilized after phase one is completed.

Corrections Maj. Antone Aguon said during an earlier part of Monday's discussion that the current prison is beyond its useful lifespan, is dangerous to employees and inmates, and lacks space for effective programs.

"If, for example, we decide not to move forward with this (master) plan and you want to just build a $30 million jail in Mangilao, and leave it at that, we're going to be back here again. We're going to have issues with staffing it. The support mechanisms will not be in there — medical, dental and behavioral that we need will not be there. We'll basically be doing the same thing that's been done for years," Aguon said.

Bill 153 is critical to changing how Corrections operates and fulfills its mission for decades to come, he added.

Raising annual debt payments by $40M

Both projects — the modern health care complex and new prison facility — would add another $40 million to Guam's annual debt service based on the amount to be pledged or reserved in their respective bills for rental payment. That would about double the current annual debt service of about $49 million, according to discussions Monday.

Sen. Sabina Perez commented that the assumption is that funding can be utilized for these long-standing projects now that EITC funding will be provided by the federal government.

It's not yet known how Guam will receive federal funds for EITC, whether it will be in the form of an advance or reimbursement. But regardless, this means General Fund moneys once used to pay out the EITC mandate are now free for other uses. 

Birn said GovGuam has been able to reduce debt service by "working away at it" in order to ensure it gets the "best financial terms."

"And if you can actually use that to achieve these projects ... that's not a bad use of the funds," Birn added.

Before closing on the bill, lawmakers added several amendments, including an amendment that would require legislative approval if other financing options are used for the new prison facility. Terlaje, who proffered the amendment, said the same amendment was made to Bill 121.

Perez also offered amendments that were meant to reduce utility costs and clarify language for procurement.

Bill addressing soil erosion also passed

A number of measures were also debated during this September session, including one that would remove caps on fines for violating Guam soil erosion and sediment regulations.

This bill, enacted in the aftermath of the stormwater runoff that flowed into the historic and tourist site Marbo Cave freshwater pools, also passed.

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