CATSKILL — The Greene County Legislature, over strong public opposition, cleared the way Wednesday night for a new jail to be built in Coxsackie.
All that remains is for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to issue the final written permits.
Lawmakers, who did not take a formal vote on the project Wednesday, said they did not receive the desired response from state leaders about legally sharing a jail with another county.
On May 15 the Legislature passed a resolution to seek state assistance in a 10-4 vote 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 May 28.
No written correspondence had been received by Wednesday’s meeting, Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said. But he relayed a phone conversation with a spokesman from Cuomo’s office to lawmakers.
“Regarding County Law 217, we need to make a local decision,” Linger said. “Pending that decision, we should direct our efforts to our local state representatives who can bring it through the proper channels.”
The key language of 217 — “Each county shall continue to maintain a county jail as prescribed by law” — played a significant role in the development of the jail project. But the law does not indicate whether a county can operate a jail outside its borders or if multiple counties can share a jail.
The governor will not take a position on the matter, Linger said.
A few hours before the Legislature met Wednesday, Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, D-50, introduced two bills regarding shared jails, Linger said.
“The first one was dead on arrival,” Linger said, referring to the proposed bill that would have amended County Law 217 and permitted shared jails statewide.
“The second bill authorized Greene County to enter an agreement with a contiguous county to share the construction, financing, improvement and/or maintenance of a county jail,” Linger said.
The second bill passed through the Codes Committee, which Lentol chairs, and moved on to the Corrections Committee.
“There is no guarantee this gets pushed forward and it’s not what we asked for,” Linger said. “According to our last meeting, we were going to move forward if we did not get confirmation from the state,” Linger said. “Is it safe to assume we are going to proceed?”
Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, who made the motion to get answers from the state, agreed that the response was not what the Legislature had been looking for.
“We didn’t receive an answer that was concrete,” Bulich said Thursday. “We wanted to see if they were interested in changing the law.”
Bulich said he sees the bill as a sign of progress but other lawmakers are not convinced.
Bulich asked why Greene County’s two local state representatives, Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, and Sen. George Amedore Jr., R-46, did not introduce the bill.
“I can’t answer that but it doesn’t matter who introduces the bill,” Linger said. There is no counterpart bill in the Senate, Linger added.
But Dianna Goodwin, senior adviser to state Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-32, confirmed Thursday that Sepulveda and state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-36, chairman of the Senate Codes Committee, will co-sponsor a companion bill.
Resident Pat Ruck attempted to address the Legislature but was cut off by Linger.
“The Legislature has heard your concerns. We have listened,” Linger said. “We lowered the bed count at the request of many, we implemented new ATI programs. We don’t have the authority to change state laws. That’s outside of our scope.”
Windham businessman Nick Bove said Thursday he was bitterly disappointed in the Legislature’s decision to silence the public.
“The county did 5% of what was needed to get action taken in Albany and the other 95% was by the rest of the room,” Bove said. “They would not allow one person to speak about what’s happening in Albany and how close we are to having an explicit law.”
Getting a response to the county’s letter was impossible, Bove said.
“You have to work with the Assembly and the Senate,” he said.
Deputy Greene County Administrator Warren Hart estimates construction will start the week of June 10, when a Notice to Proceed is submitted to contractors. Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
The county is awaiting final permits from the Department of Environmental Conservation, Hart said.
Despite verbal DEC approval, written permits have not arrived, he said.
No legislators objected to moving forward, although no formal vote was taken.
Bulich said opposing the Legislature’s wishes would have been in vain.
“I knew I didn’t have the support for a motion to rescind,” Bulich said Thursday. “If I made the motion, it would’ve done no good at all. I was respecting the will of the majority. One person cannot stop a project like this. It’s not how it works.”
Linger adjourned the meeting, but Cassidy Bua, organizer of the anti-jail campaign, started a chant around the room: “County on the brink, pause and rethink!”
Then a group of jail proponents responded with “Build that jail!”
But the confrontation was short-lived as sheriff’s deputies began clearing the room.
Bove vowed he will not give up working for a shared jail. The state legislative session is scheduled to end June 19.
“By June 19, we want to have an explicit law allowing us to do this,” he said. “We want it loud and clear, so it is undeniably clear.”
But Bove is not sure the Legislature will listen.
“Based on what I saw last night, I’m not confident the leadership will do the right thing,” he said Thursday. “If there is a way to derail this disaster, we will do so. Unfortunately, the people in power are hellbent on destroying this county.”
If a law is introduced during the current state legislative session, or a letter from state leadership expresses it will be changed in the next session, there might be hope, Bulich said.
“They may be willing to walk away and pursue a shared jail,” he said.