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Last updated 1:41AM ET
March 7, 2021
Alabama
Alabama
DOC's Failed Fish Farm Criticized
(2007-08-06)
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - State corrections officials thought turning to tilapia last summer would be a good way to generate more income, figuring the tropical fish that has spelled fiscal growth in some states could do the same for the underfunded department.

But the project, which would have expanded the department's fish operations beyond the Farquhar Cattle Ranch, was abandoned 10 months after the signing of a $695,000 purchase order for 26 fiberglass fish-growing tanks.

Now critics already sour over the department's planned sale of nearly 6,000 acres including the cattle ranch where catfish are grown are saying the failed venture is evidence of mismanagement in the system.

"If you say you don't have money, why are you going to spend money you don't have on a new venture instead of on one that's working?" asked Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, a vocal opponent of the land sale.

The 3,869-acre Hale County cattle ranch is in his district, and Howard said its shuttering would leave an estimated $1.2 million hole in the Black Belt community's economy.

He chided the department for trying to farm tilapia an ancient, mild-flavored species that is native to the Nile River instead of investing in the catfish farm and increasing production there.

Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said the department signed the original tilapia contract for nearly $700,000 with Opposing Flow Technologies in July 2006 but the project was reduced to $401,250 for 15 tanks in September.

The project was to be located in Decatur, but the contract was canceled in May after officials decided it made better business sense to use the space for 300 more work release inmates, Corbett said.

"Tilapia might have generated $100,000-$150,000 a year in revenues whereas by expanding our work release you're talking about an (estimated) additional million and a half dollars a year," he said. "So you can have $5 million with work release revenue in five years or $500,000 through fish."

Corbett said the vendor is working with the state board of adjustments to get $130,000-$150,000 for five tanks that had already been built before the cancellation. The state is looking for potential buyers, including Auburn University, he said.

"Even if the out-of-pocket cost to ADOC is in this range, we will recoup at least a portion of such by selling tanks and other supplies intended for start-up," Corbett wrote in an e-mail.

But Sen. Roger Bedford, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee, said the switch in plans shows that claims of loose financial management in the department are valid.

"I see just money being poured down the drain," said Bedford, D-Russellville. "If that's what they're saying is happening at the cattle ranch, then they need to make it profitable. Farmers are making a profit in this state."

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen and Gov. Bob Riley announced plans last month to sell 5,763 acres of the state's "unproductive and money-losing" properties to generate up to $23.8 million that will go toward $90 million worth of capital improvements.

Money from the land sale had originally been slated to help fill a $30 million hole in the department's operating budget for the 2008 fiscal year.

House Government Appropriations Committee Chairman John Knight, D-Montgomery, said he and others who "look at budgets on a day to day basis" understand the department's dilemma, but hoped corrections officials would look at new endeavors a bit more closely and work out a compromise on the ranch.

"I think the number one goal would be to make sure we maintain the employment base," in Hale County, said Knight, who called commissioner Allen "one of the most credible."

"I hope that we'll be able to work with (Allen) to resolve these issues," he said.

Deputy Prisons Commissioner Vernon Barnett said the tilapia project was suggested by Alabama Correctional Industries, the department's branch that oversees various operations including farming and the making of furniture, paint, car tags and other products.

Barnett said ACI officials did the research and the plan to branch into tilapia was made way before this spring's decision for the department to move away from farming and make ACI more profitable.

"At the end of the day it is our responsibility and we don't want to shirk that off because yes, we did sign off on tilapia and it was a bad decision," he said. "But I think it's important ... to understand that we went on the information that we had at the time."


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