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County closer to jail decision

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — June 15, 2010 — Noting the new jail project “is at a critical point,” Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis pressed his colleagues on Thursday to make several important decisions – and they did.
With all nine legislators present, the jail’s size and energy system were nailed down, though the vote remained informal.
They unanimously agreed that a 256-cell facility – the smallest allowed by the NYS Commission of Correction – would be best, but only Legislator Kathy LaBuda logged opposition to reducing the “core” of the facility to match.
Consisting of the booking area, administrative offices, visiting rooms, medical facilities, classrooms, kitchen and a maintenance area, the core will remain at a size able to handle up to 500 inmates, in case the jail is expanded in the decades hence.
Indeed, the jail is of a modular design that will allow more cell “pods” to be added in the future.
LaBuda felt costs – currently somewhere around $75 million – could be reined in further, but her colleagues didn’t want to hamstring the future ability of the jail to easily handle expansion.
LaBuda was also against a $2.4 million geothermal system that the jail’s designer, Labella, estimates will take 18-20 years to recoup in operational efficiencies.
But again, she was the lone opposition, as her colleagues felt it was a wise and green investment, especially if this jail is to last as long as the old one.
What didn’t find consensus, however, was the jail’s site. Even though the county is paying close to $2 million for 40 acres along Route 17’s Exit 104 in Monticello, more than half the Legislature remains unwilling to commit to the controversial location.
“We have property adjacent to the landfill site,” pointed out Legislator David Sager, a thought echoed by Legislator Alan Sorensen.
But Rouis and Sheriff Michael Schiff responded that the state Commission of Correction had already vetoed that site, due to concerns over litigation emanating from the jail’s proximity to the landfill.
“We wanted to go to the landfill,” explained Schiff. “[But the state feared] you’ll have people living there 24/7 with nothing to do but sue [over perceived health hazards].”
County Treasurer Ira Cohen decried the process, arguing in an unusually passionate tone that the state does not have the authority to tell the county where to site its jail.
“Yes, they do,” replied an equally confident Schiff.
Cohen, however, took more aim at Labella, whose principal, Sal Labella, had earlier acknowledged being “embarrassed” that his firm had not found these cost savings earlier in the process.
“We’ve accomplished very little for what we’ve spent,” Cohen asserted, noting that Labella has been paid at least $4 million to date, yet the jail size has fluctuated and little discussion on green technologies has been pursued.
“We have incomplete plans and paid for property that we don’t need,” he charged.
Rouis took offense to Cohen’s accusations, arguing that the county has done its due diligence – including “greening” the facility.
“To sit here and say we’ve wasted money is (a) inflammatory and (b) untrue,” he replied. “I don’t believe we’ve wasted one penny.”
Labella himself replied that the new jail design is “certifiably a green building.” Overall, he added, the changes from the original design have shaved about $5-$7 million off the construction costs, though he acknowledged that 80 percent of the jail’s future costs will be operations-related.
Notably, Grahamsville resident Ken Walter, who usually is criticizing Sullivan County Community College’s administration and the Legislature’s handling of SCCC, lent his support to the jail plan.
After learning that it will take at least three years to build the jail once approval is given (thus delaying the tax impact by a similar timeframe), Walter remarked, “By that time, the economy should be turning around. We should move ahead.”
No formal approval to move forward has yet been given, with officials waiting to see what the state says about acquiring the Sullivan Correctional Facility Annex in Fallsburg and what the Town of Thompson might be willing to do to bring water and sewer service to the Monticello site (which would otherwise require an expensive extension of the Village of Monticello’s system).
Actual construction may be a year or more off, as the county is in dire financial straits.
But, warned Schiff, less area jails are taking the county’s excess prisoners, and the state continues to bear down on the existing 100-year-old jail’s failings by closing cells.
“The Legislature doesn’t want to build this jail. I don’t want to build this jail,” he admitted. “How are we going to afford this jail? I don’t have a clue. ... The problem is, we have a gun to our head.”

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