CATSKILL — Critics of the new county jail expressed a renewed interest Tuesday in reassessing the size of the building or exploring alternatives.
They want the Greene County Legislature to reconsider how the state’s new bail reform law, which takes effect next year, could impact the number of inmates the jail will house.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a series of bills into law with the 2020 state budget April 1, which will go into effect January 2020. Included in the budget is a law eliminating bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Police must issue appearance tickets to individuals charged with misdemeanors and class E felonies rather than make custodial arrests. The reforms are expected to keep about 90% of people out of jail prior to their court date. On average, two-thirds of the incarcerated population are being detained waiting for their day in court, according to governor.ny.gov.
The anticipated decrease in inmate population brought critics to Creekside Restaurant in Catskill on Tuesday. The meeting, organized by former county legislator Lori Torgersen, prepared residents for a rally scheduled for Sunday and went over strategies to pump the brakes on the jail project.
The jail is not financially feasible or realistic, Torgersen said.
“We’re talking about 15 to 20 people,” she said.
As of April 19, the county had 31 inmates who are boarded out to jails in Albany and Columbia county, according to a jail intake report.
Of the 31 inmates, 17 are charged with felonies and 14 were charged with misdemeanors.
The report is on par with the Vera Institute of Justice’s prediction that inmate populations will decrease by 50% with the new reforms, Torgersen said.
“We’re going to spend about $70 million for an 80-bed jail for 15 people,” Torgersen said.
The $70 million figure accounts for the $39 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that the county approved in September and its 30-year debt service at 3.5% interest, and a contribution of $8.1 million from the county.
“This does not include operation costs,” Torgersen said. “We still don’t know what it will cost to operate the jail.”
The former jail, located at 80 Bridge St., was operating at $5.4 million in 2018, Torgersen said.
A similar jail built in St. Lawrence County indicates the operating budget could increase by another $2.5 million per year, Torgersen said.
The county is looking at downsizing the jail, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.
“We are looking at shrinking the number of cells, probably down to 64.” he said. “It can be done fairly easily.”
The change in design has to be submitted to the state Commission of Corrections for approval, which might not respond until July, Groden said.
The state Department of Environmental Conversation does not need to be notified of the change, Groden said, and construction can still begin late May.
“This was not unexpected and we were prepared for it,” he said.
A change order will be drafted for the construction plans, which will be voted on by the board, Groden said. The change will likely result in a decrease in construction costs but possibly higher design costs.
By looking at sharing a facility, jobs of corrections officers would still be considered, Torgersen said.
“We are not going to disregard them,” Torgersen said. “One-third of them are approaching retirement and the rest could be absorbed into county positions or at a regional facility.”
The county employs about 30 correctional officers, Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, said.
Bulich disagreed with the exorbitant expense and growth of government.
“When you put your hand on the Bible, you’re not swearing an oath to a government institution,” he said. “To me, you’re swearing an oath to the people.”
When discussion began two-and-a-half years ago about replacing the 110-year-old county jail, Bulich said he realized the county was already boarding out half of its inmates and paying $75 per day.
“I wondered, why not board out all of the inmates?” he said.
After meeting with Columbia County to discuss the possibility of a shared jail, the project was halted, Bulich said.
Greene and Columbia counties could have each made a $5,000 contribution for a feasibility study, with the state picking up the remaining $50,000.
“There is an unwillingness to go ahead of what they think the state will do,” Bulich said, alluding to county government.
Bulich, Torgersen, and former legislators Aidan O’Connor Jr. of Durham and Kevin Lennon of Catskill wrote to the governor Dec. 26 to seek an interpretation of County Law 217, which states “Each county shall continue to maintain a county jail as prescribed by law.”
The law is ambiguous as to whether a county can operate a jail outside of its own borders or share a jail with another county, Torgersen said.
Allen Riley, chairman of the state Commission of Corrections replied to Bulich in a letter dated March 6.
“The Commission has emphasized that whether to construct a new facility or whether to seek legislative authority to share services with another county was a local decision to be made by Greene County,” Riley wrote.
Greene County Attorney Edward Kaplan asked for a list of statutes in April 2018 that would need to be modified to allow a shared jail, according to the letter.
“The list was provided the following day,” Riley wrote. “To my knowledge, the Commission has received no further requests for technical assistance regarding the necessary legislation from either Greene or Columbia counties.”
The county researched the option, Groden said.
“The law has to be changed at the state level and we were told it would never go through,” he said.
Shrinking the jail will not be a huge help, Bulich said.
“Reducing beds is not the real money-saver,” he said. “The real money-saver is to share a jail and phase out a department. I can’t give you a magic ball synopsis of how this is going to go because I myself don’t know.”
Regional jails will be inevitable as the new reforms leave jails half-empty, Torgersen said.
Under state law, these facilities will have to be staffed at maximum capacity, she added.
Bulich hopes his fellow legislators will understand the situation and not feel tied down by the $3 million to $4 million spent in engineering costs.
“Don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad deal,” he said.
Catskill resident Scott Myers spoke in favor of stopping the jail.
“We are the people in charge of the county,” he said. “It’s not seven people in charge of the county. We have to make sure no ground gets broken, no contract gets signed and no more money gets spent.”
“Shovels have not hit the ground yet, which means it is not a done deal,” she said. “We should not be building a new jail at this moment in time. It seems obvious. Don’t be that one county that puts the shovel in the ground three weeks after criminal justice reform. We should be working with other counties. We are all going to be in the same boat.”
Torgersen encouraged residents to get their legislators to stop and think, and ask for state assistance in implementing the new reforms.
Bulich said he may take matters into his own hands.
“I would support or put a resolution forward asking for a pause on the construction to see if we can do something,” he said.
Bulich is a member of the Finance Committee, which meets on May 13.
Attendants were encouraged to sign a petition, attend upcoming legislature meetings, distribute fliers, call their local legislators and bring 10 people to Sunday’s rally.
The rally will be held from 1-3 p.m. at the Greene County Courthouse on Main Street in Catskill. Residents were encouraged to make their own signs although some will be provided.