Dan Hust | Democrat
LEFT: Legislator Gene Benson wants the county to reinvestigate the state prison system’s now-closed Woodbourne Annex in Fallsburg as a possible new county jail site. RIGHT: Sullivan County Jail Administrator Hal Smith calculated transportation and manpower costs to be far lower at a jail site in Monticello than elsewhere.
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO August 16, 2013 Not surprisingly, money dominated the August 8 round of legislative committee meetings.
Where to go with new jail
Prompted by a NYS Comptroller’s Office report urging construction sooner rather than later, legislators were given a history of the past decade of work on a new county jail, including the fact that the engineering firm hired to conceive the jail’s design, LaBella Associates, only has about 10 percent to complete.
More than $7 million was set aside for conception and design, and according to Acting County Manager Josh Potosek, about $4 million has been spent to date (half of that borrowed).
But while legislators generally seemed inclined to have LaBella finish the design work, there was far less certainty about where to go from there.
Legislator Gene Benson continued to press for another look at the formerly state-run Woodbourne Annex in Fallsburg, which the county and state Commission on Correction (CoC) had rejected about five years ago.
“I still think it’s a viable site,” Benson reiterated, feeling that, with sewer and water already on site, it would be cheaper than other alternatives.
But the county has already purchased around 40 acres near Route 17’s Exit 104 for the future jail. Even though sewer and water lines must be run to that location, Sheriff Michael Schiff and Jail Administrator Hal Smith predicted the transportation costs (mostly to the courts in Monticello) would be far less than at the Fallsburg site.
Legislator Alan Sorensen didn’t support the annex location but suggested reinvestigating moving the Sheriff’s Office’s Patrol Division to the former BOCES building on Plaza Drive near the old Apollo Mall.
He considered that a more effective use of county funds in the short term, as a jail “is going to be years in the making” and the Patrol Division has long contended with cramped, sometimes unsanitary conditions on Bushnell Avenue in Monticello.
But Smith noted that the county is currently boarding out 38 of its 210 inmates, at a cost of $100,000 per month.
Plus, said Legislator Kathy LaBuda, the state CoC could swoop down at any time and shutter the existing century-old jail.
“Then you’re going to be transporting 180 [more] prisoners out of the county,” she warned. “... We can’t just keep sitting around!”
The idea of a regional jail was dismissed by Legislator Jonathan Rouis, who said current state law mandates each county have its own jail.
Yet the $80 million price tag pared down from numbers twice as high still concerned Legislator Cindy Gieger and Monticello resident Barbara Pavlak, especially since it was estimated a 2.49 percent tax hike would be necessary.
“I had a friend who had to take a loan out to pay her taxes,” Pavlak told legislators. “Where’s the money coming from?”
Pavlak also criticized the county’s $2 million purchase of the land for the new jail, saying the selling price was absurdly high.
But Grahamsville resident Ken Walter urged legislators to finally get moving.
“It’s time to do it,” he stated. “It’s been kicked down the road ... and it’s gone to a more expensive one now.”
Although Benson offered to personally travel to Albany to campaign for the CoC’s reassessment of the Woodbourne Annex, legislators ultimately only agreed to (a) contact LaBella to ascertain costs in finishing the design of the jail, plus what it would cost to redesign it for the Fallsburg site, and (b) schedule trips to other new county jails in the state for comparison purposes.
Out of space, out of time
“We’re in serious straits here,” County Clerk Dan Briggs warned legislators that Thursday. “There is no room for our records.”
It’s a plea he’s been making for more than three years but one that has gone unresolved due to fiscal issues.
Now it’s at critical levels.
Take the County Courthouse, for example, where 60 boxes of records have no place to be filed.
“‘Put ‘em under your feet,’” Briggs told court clerks. “There is just no space.”
Predicting lawsuits are just a matter of time, Briggs urged legislators to seriously explore Acting County Manager Josh Potosek’s suggestion to jointly build a storage facility with local towns, villages and school districts.
“Ideally, I’d like to have a centralized location so we can monitor all records going in and going out,” he said.
The topic is expected to be discussed again next month.
Accurate, or not?
Acting County Manager Josh Potosek told legislators that Thursday that the NYS Comptroller’s Office’s recently released fiscal stress rankings of counties “is not necessarily the most accurate.”
Due to what he termed a “paper deficit” at the Adult Care Center (a deficit that will soon be offset), Potosek said the county “just barely made it in that ‘susceptible to fiscal stress’ category.”
Indeed, a detailed analysis of the Comptroller’s report showed that the scoring system the state used put the county at 15.53 points out of a possible 30. Counties ranking at 13.05-15.94 points were considered “susceptible to fiscal stress” (the lowest of three “stress” levels), while any under 13.05 were not.
“At some point, everyone’s going to be ‘fiscally stressed’ as we remain in a tax cap environment with no mandate relief,” Potosek pointed out.
Still, legislators Cindy Gieger and Kitty Vetter felt county staff should take the state’s offer to provide training, technical assistance and best-practices guidelines.
“At this point, we have nothing to lose by asking for help,” Vetter said.
Potosek, who is also the county’s Budget Commissioner, indicated reluctance, responding that the majority of the Legislature would need to direct him to do so.
Legislator Jonathan Rouis also wanted to proceed cautiously, saying the county should first find out what’s being offered as “help.”
Grahamsville resident Ken Walter agreed, warning that “every time you ask the government for something, they come in and try to make it a positive cash flow benefit for themselves.”
County doing village taxes
Legislators agreed to create four-year contracts to have the County Treasurer’s Office handle the enforcement of delinquent taxes in five of the county’s six incorporated villages.
Only the Village of Liberty has chosen to continue dealing with its delinquencies.
Thus Monticello, Jeffersonville, Bloomingburg, Wurtsboro and Woodridge will pay the county “a reasonable fee for administrative services” and will reimburse the county for out-of-pocket expenses, according to a resolution approved that Thursday.
In exchange, the county will handle foreclosures and other property tax-delinquency enforcement from November 2013 through October 2017.