CATSKILL — The Greene County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee approved a resolution Monday to stop work on a shared jail facility with Columbia County. The resolution will be put on next week’s regular legislature meeting agenda.
The resolution passed in committee 5-1, with one abstention.
A resolution authorizing $44 million in serial bonds to finance construction of the jail was brought up for reconsideration in December and lawmakers will discuss it March 21.
Legislator William Lawrence, R-Cairo, who chairs the committee, provided information on the options lawmakers have for the jail project including sharing a jail with Columbia County or continue to work on the proposed site in Coxsackie.
Lawrence opposes a shared jail concept, but said he wanted to see how it would work.
“We’ve been spinning our wheels with this idea since early last year and really getting nowhere,” Lawrence said Tuesday. “I just do not want to send any more money to Columbia County than I have to.”
A feasibility study has to be done on the Columbia County Jail site at a total cost of $60,000 to be split between the two counties. Lawrence estimates it will take three years to get a shared jail off the ground, which requires state legislative approval.
“They’re not going to want to go out and spend their own money on something we need,” Lawrence said of Columbia County lawmakers. “We still have to do design and architectural renderings and other improvements to the actual facility itself in the long run.”
The annual budget for the existing jail on Bridge Street in Catskill is $5.16 million and includes $875,000 for boarding out inmates to other jails, Lawrence said. At this time, the jail’s average daily population is 42 inmates. Columbia County Jail can house 92 inmates at a 70 percent capacity rate.
If inmates from Greene County are added to the Columbia County inmate population, Columbia’s jail could end up overcrowded.
“We may never get a facility built at least in my lifetime; however, I do think that we have to consider the fact that we have to do something here in Greene County,” Lawrence said.
Legislators Charles Martinez, R-Coxsackie, and Lee Palmateer, D-Athens, both said their constituents oppose a shared jail concept. In Windham, residents do not want to see their taxes increase to pay for a jail, Legislator Lori Torgersen, D-Windham, said.
Whether a jail is shared with Columbia County or built in Coxsackie, there will be an impact on taxes, Lawrence said.
“There’s no way we avoid paying those taxes. It’s a mandate that we have to take care of our inmates,” he said. “There’s a natural bias on Greene County residents spending money in Columbia County to improve their facility.”
“We don’t have to spend any of that money. We just have to have it in place at a cheap rate,” Lawrence said. “We’re going to lose this construction year anyway, so if we’re going to lose it, we must spend it on finalizing our own design.”
Torgersen said she is disappointed with the outcome because the resolution was not brought up in advance and there was no prior indication of abandoning the shared jail idea.
“I certainly felt blindsided,” Torgersen said Tuesday. “It was moving forward positively as a viable option.”
Business owners won’t invest in the county if their tax money is spent frivolously on a new jail, Torgersen said. Windham’s second home owners and Catskill residents will foot the majority of the costs for the jail because both pay the lion’s share of the county’s bills.
“It’s a reckless expenditure of taxpayers’ money,” Torgersen said. “Regular people in this county, your taxes will go up and they don’t have to.”
Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, handed out information estimating that a new jail would cost $7.2 million a year, while sharing would cost $2.4 million. There is a potential $4.7 million savings and the plan includes demolishing the old jail and rehabbing the existing sheriff’s office, Bulich said.
“On top of that you have the potential to have someone there from Greene County at the Columbia County facility that would oversee Greene County inmates,” Bulich said. “We would be part owners of that facility.”
Many of Bulich’s constituents are in favor of a shared jail because it shrinks government, he said.
“Many of these people who want the jail here are public employees,” Bulich said. “Their perspective is always defend the government, defend the expense of government.”
Legislator Aidan O’Connor, D-Durham, abstained from voting because information about the resolution was thin and rushed to lawmakers, he said.
“When I vote on a topic on behalf of my community it is always after having had the time to study the topic, seek out answers if needed and weigh the best possible option,” O’Connor said. “Typically, resolutions are drafted days ahead of time and agendas reflect any anticipated discussion.”
The committee made the right decision in drafting the resolution to stop a shared jail, a concept which makes no sense, Greene County Sheriff Greg Seeley said.
“I haven’t had one person say to me that it’s a good idea,” Seeley said.
Legislators have an obligation to look out for taxpayers when they spend, not just for the jail, but in all county departments, Legislator Matt Luvera, R-Catskill, said.
“It was because of alternative to incarceration programs instituted by our wonderful probation department that brought the numbers down in a county jail,” Luvera said. “A county jail is temporary and not a permanent solution — that’s why there are state prisons.”
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM