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A view of the north end of the county jail. This portion was built in the late 1950s.

New county jail on hold

By Kathy Daley
MONTICELLO — January 4, 2011 — For the Sullivan County Jail, this month marks an anniversary of an ignominious sort.
It was nearly one year ago that the state Chairman of the Commission of Correction visited the Monticello house of detention and said the place reminded him of a “dungeon.”
“I saw exposed wires… things that cannot be readily repaired or secured,” said Chairman Thomas Beilein at the time. On that January day, “It was 85 degrees in there, with steam pipes exposed and windows open to try to equalize the temperature.”
Beilein shuttered one wing of the portion of the jail that was built over a century ago. And he stressed that Sullivan County must build a new jail that meets state standards.
“Sullivan County has the oldest operating jail in the state. It is in an advanced state of deterioration – which I don't think anyone disputes – and is literally falling to pieces. It is barely habitable and is very close to being unsuitable as a work environment,” said Commissioner of Correction spokesman John Caher.
Chairman Beilein was out of town an unavailable for comment.
One year later, what has happened to the closed jail cells and just where is the plan to construct a new facility?
Regardless of headlines, state pronouncements and worried politicians, men and women are still being arrested and housed at the Bushnell Avenue facility.
Like the population at most county jails, inmates in Monticello are primarily people who have been accused of crimes committed within the county borders, from driving while intoxicated, to selling drugs, to murder. The vast majority have not been convicted of a crime but rather are being held until their trial date comes up.
“Our population right now is at 140,” said Sullivan County Jail Administrator Harold Smith last week. Some 34 inmates are serving short-term sentences, usually of about a year. The rest — over 100 individuals — “are being detained because they are suspected of a crime, not found guilty of a crime,” Smith said. “They are potentially innocent.”
Some have been in jail awaiting trial for longer than a year, he said.
As compared with the summertime, when the jail population boomed and inmates had to be “boarded out” to other jails, the numbers are now down, a normal fluctuation in the jail business, said Smith. He said his jail can legally hold 185 individuals.
“Boarding out” to other facilities costs $85 per day per prisoner.
Smith noted that most of the unfit jail cells closed by the state have now been rehabbed to the state’s liking, and there are plans to convert the remaining closed cells into other usable space.
As one would expect, Smith is a proponent of constructing a jail that meets state standards. He is also aware that the reality of a new jail must take into account several factors. One is that few politicians embrace jail building because it’s a hard sell to constituents, who tend to feel prisoners shouldn’t expect accommodations like the Ritz.
“I understand that thinking,” said Smith. “But then let somebody’s brother or son get arrested, and it’s a different story.”
Regardless of guilt or innocence, jail inmates “are still human beings and their living conditions should be decent,” he said.
The other roadblock to a new jail is that Sullivan County, like counties elsewhere, is knee-deep in an economic recession, its tax-paying citizens maxed out already.
“This project can’t move forward to bonding, in my opinion, until this recession has ended,” said Sullivan County Manager David Fanslau, “and (until) the county has realized economic growth in non-property tax revenues.”
That’s because a new jail would cost about $80 million to construct, paid for by the county’s issuance of 30-year bonds. The annual debt service, or mortgage, would be about $5.5 million, which would require a 11.32 percent property tax rate increase each year for the next 30 years. That increase could only shrink if the county experienced major economic growth in other areas of revenue, such as sales tax.
“There should also be other sources of revenues explored rather than simply relying upon the property tax levy,” Fanslau said. Furthermore, he noted, should Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed cap on property taxes go through, Sullivan County would need need even more alternate ways of funding jail construction costs.
Meanwhile, the County has finalized the land purchase for a new jail, as well as specifics about the new jail’s size and its program. The site is the old Mapes Farm on Old Route 17, which is off Route 17’s Exit 104 (the Monticello Racetrack exit).
For his part, Jail Administrator Smith argues that the current jail, whose oldest section was built in 1909, already wastes taxpayers’ money. “An aging building costs a lot to run,” he said. “It takes a lot of fuel to heat this building, especially on a winter day when the wind is blowing.”
Employees have suffered costly injuries on the jail’s concrete worn smooth and metal stairs with no treading.
“A new jail will be a smarter, more economic facility,” Smith said. “This one has outlived its purpose.”
But it seems unlikely that the new year will herald a groundbreaking for an updated county jail.
“Without a distinct increase in non-property tax revenues in 2011,” said Fanslau, “or a federal or state grant for the project, I do not believe the county could prudently handle the significantly increased debt service repayment in a fiscally responsible manner.”
The office of the state Commission of Correction is working with Sullivan County on its jail needs, said Caher.
“We are always very willing to work with local authorities to resolve jail-related problems, and Chairman Beilein ran a large urban jail for many years and fully understands and sympathizes with the economic and logistical difficulties facing the sheriff and county leaders,” said Caher. “But the bottom line is the county has to safely, securely and humanely house its prisoners. Sullivan County would not want to be in a position where the existing jail was unusable – and it's getting there quickly – and local taxpayers were saddled with the considerable cost of boarding prisoners elsewhere.”

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