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Can we afford a new jail?

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — January 22, 2008 — As currently mandated by the state, Sullivan County’s new jail will cost $105 million, consultant Steve Lynch told county legislators Thursday.
While few disagree that the county’s current 100-year-old jail in Monticello is insufficient, legislators balked at the price tag, especially when Lynch told them the new jail would, on average, cost about $14 million more a year until it’s paid off in 2030.
Plus, considering the county’s current $60 million in debt and the possibility that another $33 million debt would be created by the proposed Phase II expansion of the landfill, Lynch warned that the county’s now-stellar credit rating could be severely compromised.
There is one bright spot, however. The company that originally studied how many beds the new jail would need – 440, based on the presence of casinos in the area – is expected to make a presentation to the Legislature this Thursday showing how many beds would be needed if casinos did not come.
Since the future of casinos in the area is fairly dim, legislators are hoping these new numbers will convince the state (which mandates county jails’ locations, sizes and staffing) that Sullivan County is justified in reducing the project’s scope.
“A $100 million jail? There is no way the county can afford to build that,” said District 2 Legislator Kathy LaBuda, the chair of the Public Works Committee that is overseeing the project.
Still, she conceded that any new jail would likely cost the county at least $60-$70 million – not an insignificant chunk of money even in a county with a $192 million total budget.
“Everything is back on the drawing boards,” remarked District 7 Legislator Leni Binder, though she acknowledged that county officials plan to go “green” with the new facility, even though it costs more.
There is, of course, the option of defying the state Commission on Corrections, as Tompkins County has done recently. But legislators seem reluctant to throw the county into an uncertain and possibly expensive court battle.
Regardless of what path the county and state take, LaBuda promised that there will be at least two public hearings – scheduled in the evening hours – on the project.

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