CATSKILL — Crowded in a packed room of the Greene County Legislature chambers Monday night, members of the Public Safety Committee shot down a resolution to fund a study to explore the possibility of a shared Twin County jail.
The proposed feasibility study of the Columbia County Jail, which was expected to cost $60,000, was defeated in a 5-3 vote Monday night.
The cost would have been evenly split between Columbia and Greene counties, or each county spending $30,000. The Columbia County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee voted in favor of spending the money to complete the study to explore the shared jail option.
Committee members passed a resolution to accept a loan of $51,418,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Agriculture to build a new Greene County jail at a site behind the Coxsackie Correctional facility in a 6-2 vote. The interest rate for the loan is 3.5 percent.
Sharing the jail with Columbia County was expected to cut the cost of the project by more than 50 percent.
The federal money would not be accepted as a bond, but a 30-year-low interest loan if the Legislature decides to build a jail at the proposed site in Coxsackie, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said during the meeting.
The Public Safety Committee’s green light is the first step for the county to file an application for the USDA loan. Once filed, the county would be locked into low interest rate.
The resolution would have to pass the Finance Committee and at the regular Legislature meeting March 21 for the county to file the application.
“If we don’t authorize this tonight, than we’re subject to any increases in the [interest] rate that may occur later this year if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates,” Groden said. “If this board chooses at a later date not to do the Coxsackie jail, we simply walk away from this application.”
The loan application process took seven months. USDA representatives reviewed every facet of the jail budget and the design, which has a capacity of 80 full-time and 18 transition beds, Groden said.
“It took us this long to get them to a point where they would make a commitment to the project,” he said.
After the Legislature receives the USDA loan, construction on the jail must begin within six months to a year of the approval and be completed within five years, Groden said.
The jail’s average daily population for March 2018 is 54 inmates with about 23 being sent to other jails, Greene County Jail Superintendent Michael Spitz said.
More than 10 county residents commented to the committee about the resolutions before Legislators cast their votes.
The Columbia County Jail has plenty of space for Greene County inmates, said Scott Myers, of Athens.
“We don’t have any money; there’s no plan for any more commerce that’s non-tourism and that’s non-seasonal,” Myers said.
Myers called for Spitz to be fired and accused Spitz of running the jail poorly. Spitz didn’t respond, but Joseph Izzo, of Catskill, asked Myers to sit down because the Legislature wasn’t discussing personnel matters.
Myers replied Izzo was not his boss.
“I know I’m not, but boy am I tired of listening to you,” Izzo said.
Neva Wartell, of Catskill, asked Groden how much the new jail’s design and engineering work has cost the county, so far. As of Monday, about $1.5 million has been spent in engineering, consulting and designs, Groden said.
“We’re talking about [spending] $30,000 for potentially saving millions of dollars and not impoverishing our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren in this county,” Wartell said. “All of you people who represent taxpayers, excuse me, you don’t belong here.”
A public referendum on funding for the jail has never been held, but is long overdue, Wartell said after the meeting, adding that building a new jail will send the county in a terrible direction.
“We have to go door-to-door, we have to talk to the people everywhere and have a massive response and deliver it to the Legislature and let them know who their constituents are,” she said.
Investing money in the jail project is foolish, Catskill resident Alex Wernquest said, adding spending the $30,000 for the feasibility study will save money to benefit future generations.
“It’s beyond absurd to me to be listening to all of you adults in this room refusing to continue investigating another option,” Wernquest said. “It’s just an issue that, I’m sorry, is going to outlive most of the people in this room, but I’m going to live with it for the rest of my life.”
It was shameful the feasibility study resolution didn’t pass after an intelligent debate on the matter, Wernquest said after the meeting.
“It was a no-brainer vote in terms of civility and the good of the county to just investigate another option,” he said.
It was irresponsible of the legislators to vote on the resolutions when their constituents did not have all the facts about them, Lindsay Poleck, of Catskill, said.
“I think a lot of the constituents are unaware of how much their taxes are going to go up because of the decision made tonight,” Poleck said.GREENE COUNTY REACTION
While committee members shot down the feasibility study, it does not mean shared jail discussions will end because other funds could be sought to fund it, Public Safety Chairman and Legislator William Lawrence, R-Cairo, said.
Following the completion of a feasibility study, the county would have had to follow through with other studies and construction, which Lawrence said would have been a huge commitment.
“If Columbia County were to pay for [all of] it, or the state of New York would have paid for it, I think it would have gone through,” Lawrence said. “The fact that we’d have to pay for something that we have no assurance to work made us a little bit skeptical.”
The legislators who voted against the feasibility study Monday night went against the concerns of their constituents who spoke in favor of it, Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, said Tuesday. Torgersen voted in favor of going forward with the shared jail feasibility study.
“It didn’t seem to matter what anybody said,” Torgersen said. “I can only hope the perspective of the public matters to my colleagues.”
The message expressed by residents was loud and clear — they wanted answers to their questions about the project, Torgersen said. A feasibility study of the Columbia County jail would have provided answers.
“How can you make a decision when you don’t have any answers?” Torgersen said.
Torgersen, who has a doctorate degree in criminal justice, has been heavily involved in meeting with representatives from the state Commission of Correction and said every piece of information she’s received has stated a shared jail concept is viable.
“There’s a real possibility here of major savings,” she said.
Residents have sent multiple emails to Torgersen requesting information about the jail and said information about the project on the county’s website is outdated.
“Not only can they find out what the options are, we have information that’s so dated,” she said. “The public is not informed, it’s misinformed.”
Legislator Pat Linger, R-New Baltimore, voted in favor of the loan resolution, but said funding for the project through an open bond market might provide a better rate.
“I think that needed to be approved so that we can move forward,” Linger said.
Linger spoke with over 100 people, either in person or over the phone, who told him they didn’t want their tax money spent in Columbia County for the feasibility study, he said. About 15 residents Linger heard from supported the feasibility study, he added.
“If they’re going to spend tax money, they’d rather see it invested here in Greene County to whatever extent possible — that’s how I voted,” Linger said. “We have to come together and fix a problem that’s existed for many, many years.”
The feasibility study would have determined whether the Columbia County Jail could accommodate an addition put on and if Columbia County wanted a study, it should pay for it completely, Linger said. Greene County taxpayers would have been responsible for any further repairs and relocations the Columbia County Jail requires.
“That study, in and of itself, gives Columbia County a benefit,” he said. “Within the next 10 to 15 years, the state Commission of Correction is gong to require them to rebuild their facility just like they’re doing with Greene County now.”
A lengthier conversation should have been held to discuss both the shared jail option and building the jail in Coxsackie, Legislator Kevin Lennon, D-Catskill, said after the meeting. Lennon voted against the loan resolution and in favor of going forward with the feasibility study, but was interested in locking in the low-interest rates.
“My problem is, this could have been done six months ago to lock in an even lower interest rate,” Lennon said.COLUMBIA COUNTY REACTION
While there are potential savings for Greene County to have a shared jail, the decision to have a feasibility study was ultimately up to Greene lawmakers, Columbia County Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell said.
The Columbia County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to conduct the feasibility study in its respective committees, but the study was contingent on Greene County’s support.
“If they’re not going to entertain it, we won’t entertain it,” Murell said. “The ball has always been in Greene County’s court.”
As of Tuesday, Murell said he is unsure about whether Columbia County would pull the feasibility study resolution from tonight’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting.
“This has had so many ups and downs over the past year,” he said.
The Columbia County Jail is in excellent condition, Columbia County Sheriff David Barlett said Tuesday. Last week, the state Sheriff’s Association conducted a full assessment of the facility, he said, adding one is assessment is completed every five years.
“We passed with flying colors,” Bartlett said.
While sharing a jail with Greene County could be beneficial, it’s Greene County Sheriff Greg Seeley’s responsibility to run a jail, Bartlett said. The Columbia-Greene Shared Services Response Team is an example of the two counties sharing services.
“If the sheriff needs or wants the jail, I back him,” Bartlett said. “From what I’m understanding, it’s a moot point either way.”
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.