CATSKILL — Greene County lawmakers held a discussion devoted exclusively to the new Greene County Jail project Wednesday at the county building.
Legislators weighed three options: building a proposed $51.4 million jail behind the Greene Correctional Facility off Route 9W in Coxsackie, rehabbing the existing jail on Bridge Street in Catskill or sharing a space at the Columbia County Jail in Hudson.
A measure to conduct a $60,000 feasibility study of the Columbia County Jail site, which was to be evenly split between the Twin Counties, was rejected by the Greene County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee on March 12. The Legislature approved a resolution March 21 to authorize an agreement for a $51,418,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Agency to build a new jail at the Coxsackie site.
The existing jail in Catskill has 40 open cells, but an area of the facility is closed because it does not have proper toilets and sinks, Jail Superintendent Michael Spitz said during the meeting.
As of Wednesday, 28 inmates were boarded out to the jails in Columbia and Ulster counties.OPENING ARGUMENTS
Conditions at the existing Greene County Jail continue to deteriorate, said Legislator Lee Palmateer, D-Athens, and it’s time for lawmakers to build a new one.
The legislators had a lengthy debate about sharing a jail with Columbia County since last year.
“The Commission of Correction is breathing down our neck,” Palmateer said. “We don’t want to chase this dream that could take years and years and you could very potentially end up with nothing.”
The idea of paying $51 million to build a facility is overwhelming, said Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, and looking into a shared jail concept should be explored.
“It’s called expanding the tax base so you alleviate the burden of the limited tax base that we have now,” Bulich said. “That’s the whole concept of consolidation.”THE CHAMBER SPEAKS
Prior to Wednesday night’s meeting, Greene County Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Friedman sent a letter to Greene County Legislature Chairman Kevin Lewis requesting lawmakers fund the feasibility study for the Columbia County Jail to determine all details of a shared facility before making any final decisions, according to the letter.
Friedman also requested lawmakers fund studies to re-examine revisions to the design of the proposed jail site in Coxsackie, he said in the letter. Chamber board members are concerned residents lack knowledge about the project.
“Once people are given the information, they are not supportive of the present course of action in the Legislature,” Friedman said in the letter.
Other than potential cost savings, Friedman’s letter did not address the issues lawmakers against the shared jail have, such as if it’s legal to do so, Palmateer said.
“The Chamber of Commerce letter did not shed one iota of light on it,” he said. “They didn’t talk about how much it would cost to build a jail in Columbia County. I don’t think anybody knows.”
Friedman addressed the Legislature and told Palmateer he misunderstood the point of the letter.
“What we asked you was, explore every possibility,” Friedman said. “We are fully aware of the law and the challenges with the law — we spoke with our membership about that.”
Cost-cutting measures could be achieved with building a jail or sharing one with Columbia County, Friedman said, and the chamber never suggested to not build a new jail.
“You do not have all the facts about the shared jail, you haven’t even done the feasibility study,” Friedman said.
Any decision about the jail should be made in the best interest of constituents from a fiscal and public safety standpoint, Friedman said.
“We do not take a position,” he said. “I will not have the chamber be in here and be mischaracterized. It seems to me, by sitting here quietly, that everyone in this room has made up their mind already.”AN INSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE
Karen Jaycox, a corrections officer at the Greene County Jail, discussed the sweltering and unsanitary conditions at the Bridge Street facility.
Any repairs made to the existing jail are simply putting a Band-Aid on the problem, and Jaycox is concerned about potential job loss.
“That jail has been a sore spot forever — it needed to be done a long time ago, not now,” Jaycox said. “I’ve watched this jail go down in four tiers, three tiers.”
The county received a letter in 2006 from the state Commission of Correction telling the county it needed a new jail because of ventilation issues, Jaycox said. She has worked at the jail for 22-and-a-half years and believes no one is concerned about corrections officers’ well-being.
“Prolonging the agony is not doing any good,” she said. “I feel ashamed of how this is run — people’s lives are at stake.”
Palmateer thanked Jaycox for her comments and asked her if she thinks the county should build a new jail, to which she replied it should.
“That building over there is a piece of junk and I wouldn’t send anybody there to work,” Palmateer said. “We could vote to build a jail, except we’re giving the minority [an] extreme ordinate amount of power to delay this thing.”
Legislator Kevin Lennon, D-Catskill, disagreed with Palmateer and said it’s crucial to keep costs down for residents.
“If we’re going to take a vote, let’s stop grandstanding it and put the bond up,” Lennon said.REACTIONS
Former Greene County Legislator Joseph Izzo, of Catskill, provided independently completed long-term numbers on the costs of building a new jail.
If the Legislature bonds at $52.4 million, a resident who lived in a house assessed at $100,000 would pay an $81.18 tax rate over a 30-year period, Izzo said.
“I certainly would as a taxpayer be willing to spend $86 a year for a brand new jail that was going to last me at least 30 years,” Izzo said. “Either that tax rate will go down as you shrink the costs of the jail, or the tax rate will go up as you go over a 30-year period.”
Izzo believes Wednesday’s jail meeting wasn’t productive and was simply a rehash of all the arguments for and against building a jail, which have already been discussed, he said after the meeting.
“This issue is never going to have a consensus,” Izzo said. “Either the Legislature votes to proceed with the bond with a super majority, or it’s going to wait after the November election.”
The jail issue has been discussed since the early 2000s, said Legislator Linda Overbaugh, R-Catskill. Overbaugh has been involved in discussions for 5-and-a-half years.
“We’ve been needing a jail for a long time and these legislative groups just can’t seem to come together and do what needs to be done,” she said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Overbaugh expressed her concerns about the age of the Columbia County Jail. She questioned what would happen if Greene lawmakers invested in a shared jail, and then the Columbia County Jail needed to be replaced.
“We haven’t looked at it thoroughly, but I’m still not in favor of spending $30,000 [for the feasibility study],” she said. “It’s a lot of money to me, what happens if you come out with a result that says ‘Oh no you can’t build over here.’”
The shared jail wouldn’t truly be shared, Overbaugh said, as Columbia County lawmakers would have the final say in any future decisions to the facility.
“The ownership of the jail would stay with Columbia County and we would be at their whim for whatever they wanted to do,” Overbaugh said. “I certainly am for saving money where we can, but I’d like to save money over here building a jail for ourselves.”
The meeting gave legislators a chance to inform fellow lawmakers of their prospective and to try to bring the facts together, said Legislator Aidan O’Connor, D-Durham.
“I left feeling as though more facts were given, more facts were received and that I’m putting my puzzle piece together that I think is best for the town of Durham,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor often gives updates about the jail project to the Durham Town and Planning boards, he said, as his constituents want a solution.
“The consensus I would say is that they’re leaning towards wanting it in Greene County,” he said. “They don’t want to lose another service, however, the tax burden is a big item.”
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.