A feasibility study repeatedly rejected. A report of a steep decline in the inmate population brushed aside. A public outcry reduced to a whisper. Apparent discrepancies in the signing of contracts largely unexplained. The Greene County Legislature’s long, strange quest to build a new jail turned into a financial and political nightmare.
Yet, here we stand today, on the verge of a groundbreaking ceremony for a costly and unpopular construction project that spawned a powerful opposition movement arguing that the jail is extravagant and unnecessary, a building that may prove obsolete before it is even occupied.
This isn’t going to be a discount for Greene County taxpayers. The jail will cost a total of $47 million and will be built with help from a $39 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The county will pony up the other $8 million. The jail is expected to add around $2 million a year to the county’s debt service for the next 30 years.
The final step is for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to issue the final written permits.
On May 15, the Legislature, in a 10-4 vote, passed a resolution to seek state assistance regarding the legality of a shared jail. Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden sent correspondence May 16 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and state Sens. John Flanagan and Brian Kolb, requesting a response no later than Tuesday.
No written correspondence had been received by the start of a special meeting on the jail Wednesday, said Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore.
County lawmakers did not receive the desired response from state leaders about legally sharing a jail with another county, driving the final nail into the coffin of a shared jail.
Linger told the crowd at Wednesday’s meeting the Legislature heard their concerns and made concessions. Lawmakers reduced the bed count at the request of many jail foes and implemented new alternative to incarceration programs.
Well and good, but this is a jail that should not have made it past the discussion phase in the first place. Since the first time county lawmakers voted against a $30,000 feasibility study to learn just how necessary the jail was, it should have been clear that one blunder was going to follow another.
So, as we wait for the DEC to weigh in on the project, we say it’s fair to ask what could have prevented this debacle?
Windham businessman Nick Bove also wants answers and said Thursday he was bitterly disappointed in the Legislature’s decision to press the mute button on the public outcry.
Worse, not a single lawmaker raised an objection to giving the jail project the green light. Even Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, a staunch conservative when it comes to spending taxpayer money, waved a white flag, saying opposing the Legislature’s wishes would have been in vain.
Imagine if this was an election year. Imagine if the Legislature voted for a feasibility study two years ago and learned that a new jail would be a waste of time and money. Imagine if the top county officials were more transparent about the jail contracts.
The Greene County Legislature faces a crisis of leadership on a level not seen since the sale of the former Greene County Memorial Hospital in the early 1990s. If lawmakers don’t mend this fence, they soon could have more to worry about than a jail.