CATSKILL — After a heated debate, the Public Safety Committee of the Greene County Legislature tabled a vote Monday to authorize $39 million in bonds to build a new jail in Greene County.
Legislators shelved an initial bond resolution in May that would have authorized $51.4 million in serial bonds to cover the cost of building a new 96-bed jail behind the Greene Correctional Facility off Route 9W in Coxsackie, during the Greene County Legislature’s Finance Committee meeting, to explore cost savings.
The bond amount was reduced to $39 million, after cuts to the new jail design resulted in about $4 million of savings that reduced the project cost to $47.2 million, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said. In addition, the county planned to pay $8 million of the cost from its fund balance, or leftover money from previous years’ budgets, which would lower the amount of money the county would need to borrow, Groden said. The project construction cost of $47.2 million remains the same.
The existing jail on Bridge Street closed April 20 for safety reasons a short time after it was ranked as one of the worst jails in the state in February by the state Commission of Corrections.
After an emotional debate Monday on the proposed jail’s size and cost, the legality of a shared jail, unknown operating costs and the county’s lack of Alternative-To-Incarceration services, Public Safety Committee Chairman William Lawrence, R-Cairo, decided to pull the vote until the September committee meeting.
During that 60-day hiatus, lawmakers plan to publicly release a frequently-asked-questions list and a jail operation budget estimate, and re-examine the proposed jail size with the Commission of Corrections. The question list will include details about the bond and how it would affect property taxes, Lawrence said Tuesday.
The net debt expense of the bond could raise property taxes by $29 dollars per $100,000 of assessed home valuation, he said.
“The public is not aware, we have not done our homework, we consistently put out incorrect facts,” said Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, during Monday’s meeting. “What we’re talking about is $47.1 million plus interest and whether or not there’s a better way we can spend that money.”
The Public Safety Committee includes Lawrence and Legislators Charles Martinez, R-Coxsackie; Harry Lennon, D-Cairo; Pat Linger, R-New Baltimore; and Lori Torgersen, D-Windham.
After almost three hours of debate Monday between residents and lawmakers, Legislator Larry Gardner, D-Hunter, proposed tabling the resolution to revisit the bond vote after more research and public discussion.
“I’m not looking to delay the process,” Gardner said. “I’m looking to clarify the process. I believe that we have the time to do this and still move forward if that’s what we’re going to do.”
Delaying the decisions may result in the Legislature running the risk of losing the 3.5 percent interest rate it secured when it authorized a $51,418,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Agency in March.
“My concern is, we have low-interest bonding available that will disappear on March 1,” Groden said during Monday’s meeting. “Every 1 percent that goes up adds $12 million to the life of the project. That’s a game-changer.”
Delaying Monday’s vote would not affect the county’s ability to meet that deadline, as long as designs and bid preparations continued, Groden added. The cost of architects and designers could be a few hundred thousand dollars, Groden estimated in response to a question from a resident at the meeting.
If the Public Safety Committee approves the bond resolution in September, the measure will move to a vote in the Finance Committee and then the full Legislature, where a super majority of at least 10 legislators is required to pass it, Lawrence said Tuesday.SHARED-JAIL OPTION
The Legislature defeated a proposed resolution last month authorizing a feasibility study to explore the possibility of a shared Twin County jail, but many of the residents crammed into the caucus room Monday pleaded with the board to re-open the issue.
“This is serious,” said Darleen Downing, of East Durham. “It seems grossly irresponsible to encumber the 49,000 residents of this county with debt of this magnitude without doing due diligence,”
The study, projected to cost $60,000 evenly split between Greene and Columbia counties, was defeated in a 7-6 vote during the June 20 Legislature meeting. In 2017, the state Department of Shared Services was willing to fund $50,000 of that cost as long as the study included long-term plans for the jail, which would have brought the cost down to $5,000 for each county.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Insha Rahman, project director at the Vera Institute of Justice. “Jail is an important resource for a county but it’s the most expensive resource you have in terms of your criminal justice system and should be used judiciously.”
In 2017, Greene County appropriated $5.3 million for costs of incarceration in a county of 49,000 people, the same as Tompkins County which has more than double the population, she said.
The proposed jail plan had an initial capacity of about 150, Groden said Tuesday. The County commissioned a needs-assessment in 2015 to determine jail size, based on a 20-year history and census data, Groden said on Tuesday. But after the assessment, jail population dropped.
“Frequency [jail] of use constantly fluctuates,” he said, citing changes in seasons, the economy, and even concerts on the mountaintop. “There is no perfect number.”
The share jail concept would require building an addition onto the Columbia County Jail, a structure that’s more than 30 years old and built in an outdated, linear style, Groden said.
The new design is a much larger room, much more interactive for the correctional officers, he said.
Building a county jail is emotional for some Greene County residents.
“My board members hear from constituents who say they don’t want the jail built in another county,” Groden said. “It’s the raw emotion of, should it be built in our own county in our own control.”ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION
There are 71 regional jails across 21 states in the nation, but none in New York state, Rahman said during a presentation before Monday’s Legislature meeting on programs that serve as alternatives to incarceration, including law enforcement assisted diversion, alternative forms of bail, pre-trial services and opioid court — noting that 65 percent of Greene County’s jail population includes people charged with drug crimes, property offenses, or probation of violation.
Though the resolution was tabled Monday, many legislators came to the meeting prepared to vote.
“I would have voted [yes] for it last night and I would vote for it in September,” Linger said, adding the board needs to get bids to estimate costs accurately. “The economy is moving so fast right now I’m not sure where we’re going to wind up.”
“I was planning to vote yes,” Martinez said. “We need a jail in Greene County, not shared services.”
“I firmly believe we have an incredible opportunity to explore a shared jail with Columbia [County] as a viable and cost-effective solution,” Torgersen said, noting she would have voted no on the bond resolution. “We need to do due diligence on a shared jail, engage expert partners and follow up with the state commission and governors office in terms of next steps.”
For Lawrence, the issue has taken many turns since he started working on the project more than a decade ago.
“We’re spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere,” Lawrence said, adding Monday was the third public hearing on the subject with hourslong debate. “At this point, I may have to resign this position [as Public Safety Committee Chairman]. I’ve been working on this project since 2004 one way or another, maybe there’s a fresh set of eyes that can see it better.”