Tempers flare as jail bond passes
Tempers flare as jail bond passes
CATSKILL — For the second time this year, the Greene County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee approved a bond resolution Wednesday to help pay for a new county jail in Coxsackie, but not without comment from residents.
The vote was 5-3 in favor of the resolution.
Legislators William Lawrence, R-Cairo; Charles Martinez, R-Coxsackie; Harry Lennon, D-Cairo; Pat Linger, R-New Baltimore; and Legislature Chairman Kevin Lewis voted yes.
Legislators Kevin Lennon, D-Catskill; Lori Torgersen, D-Windham; and Aidan O’Connor Jr., D-Durham, voted no.
The Finance Committee on May 14 shelved a resolution to authorize a bond worth $51.4 million for a new county jail, opting instead to explore cost savings. The bond amount was reduced to $39 million due to $4 million in cuts to the jail’s design and the county’s ability to offset project costs by using its fund balance — leftover funds amassed from budgets of previous years — to reduce the amount the county has to borrow. This past year’s fund balance was $11 million.THE PUBLIC ERUPTS
Before and after the resolution passed, residents shared their concern, sometimes angrily, about the project’s costs. Many who spoke confronted legislators about their perceived lack of interest in public feedback.
The county doesn’t have the money to pay for the project and costs will be closer to $90 million in the future, Scott Myers, of Catskill, said, adding that not much crime is committed to warrant a new jail.
“Nobody does the math. It’s particularly bizarre,” Myers said. “There’s something sick going on in this county.”
Legislator Lee Palmateer, D-Athens, asked Lawrence for lawmakers not to take public comment because otherwise nothing would be accomplished, he said.
“There’s one instance right there of hearing the same thing we’ve heard 10 times already,” Palmateer said of Myers’ comment.
Melanie Flannery, of Catskill, asked Palmateer a simple question.
“Is it really annoying to do your job and listen to the public?” Flannery said.
Flannery was disappointed with lawmakers because they are public servants but did not seem interested in hearing from their constituents, she said later.
“I thought it was shameful how little so many members of the legislature were interested in listening to their public,” she said. “Everything has been for the sheriff and not for the people.”
The bond was reduced to $39 million, but construction costs are projected to be $55 million, Neva Wartell, of Catskill, said.
“Is that information available to the public? Is that information like that even available to your legislators?” Wartell said. “This is called risk, financial risk.”
Viable alternatives, such as funding a $30,000 feasibility study of a shared jail concept with Columbia County, haven’t been explored, Wartell said.
“How can you call yourselves responsible legislators?” she said. “Those of you who are going to be leaving, who are not coming back for another term, this is the legacy that you want to leave?”
Robert Tomlinson, of Catskill, asked lawmakers to give the public 20 minutes to address their concerns in a respectful manner.
“You have enough evidence that there’s serious concern about what’s being done,” Tomlinson said. “You’ve spent hours, let’s spend another 20 minutes.”
Lawmakers agreed to meet at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 prior to the legislature’s Finance Committee meeting for residents to comment. Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, asked the public to come prepared.
“Come with your pencils sharpened, have numbers for Finance on what you see, not a 10-minute speech,” Bulich said.AFTERMATH
The county could be spending money on more important items than a jail, Steve Schmitz, of Catskill, said.
“Invest in education, not jails, invest in hospitals, not jails,” Schmitz said.
Phoebe Potter, of West Kill, was a member of the Alternatives to Incarceration panel and thinks many residents aren’t aware of the issues surrounding the jail project, she said after the meeting.
“It’s financially irresponsible,” Potter said of the project costs.
Kate Reinke, of Windham, will attend the Sept. 17 meeting, but was appalled by the behavior of some legislators, she said.
“I was upset how disinterested they were in hearing public comment,” she said.LEGISLATORS’ REACTIONS
Linger is pleased with the passage of the resolution because it should have been voted on 18 months ago, he said Thursday.
“We’re losing a significant amount of money in delay,” he said.
Residents can contact Linger by phone and email to ask questions or attend the bimonthly New Baltimore Town Board meetings to address their concerns.
“I’m answering questions all year long and everybody has that same opportunity,” he said.
Legislator Linda Overbaugh, R-Catskill, isn’t a member of the Public Safety Committee, but she is confident the bond resolution will pass the Finance Committee, she said.
“As much as people say we haven’t done our due diligence, we’ve been doing this for five and a half years and we’ve talked to everybody we know,” she said Thursday.
Overbaugh will listen to residents’ concerns at the upcoming public hearing, but will not entertain a rehashing of the same points, she said.
“If it gets to be out of hand again, I’m just going to get up and leave,” Overbaugh said.
O’Connor voted against the bond resolution because the county cannot afford it, he said Thursday.
“We have had other options that our legislature could have explored to determine their viability, yet they were voted down,” O’Connor said. “As stewards of tax payer dollars, we must be more responsible.”
Residents’ taxes will rise and important services will be cut in order to pay for the jail, O’Connor said.
“We need to be very targeted and unified in a long-term sustainable year-round growth plan for Greene County,” he said.
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.