With a number of lawmakers convinced that Sullivan County taxpayers can’t afford an $80 million new jail, county officials have moved to get a second opinion. The $80 million plan came from LaBella Associates; now a company called Goldberg Group Architects (GGA) will provide the county with a “concept plan” for a new jail.
That information was passed on by the county attorney, Sam Yasgur, at a meeting at the government center on September 11. He said GGA will “see if they can design a facility that will save substantial dollars; they have to design it that meets with the commission of corrections in Albany.” He added that they will also determine what uses, if any, the existing 102-year-old jail can be put to.
(County treasurer Ira Cohen, who is running unopposed for a new term, sent an email to residents on September 20 saying, “because of poor leadership in the county government center, to date, the County has paid (and wasted) millions to LaBella for initial work on the prospective new jail with little to show for it.” He added some good news saying, “GGA is now estimating it could build a 300+bed facility on that already-acquired property off Route 17's Exit 104 in Monticello for as little as $40 million, which is a much cheaper (half the $80 million) price to build a new jail.” See the full message below.)
One question that has yet to be answered is where Sullivan County Sheriff’s Road Patrol and Office will be located when the new jail is built. Under the original plan, the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies such as the probation department were to be located at the new jail. But the La Bella plan for that would have cost $120 million. After those entities were dropped from the plan the price dropped to $80 million, but a decision about the location of the Sheriff’s Patrol was never made.
At the meeting on September 11, legislator Alan Sorenson said that county lawmakers should consider using a county-owned building situated behind the Apollo Plaza, a third of which is now being used to house the county’s new voting machines, which unlike the old lever machines, require housing in a climate-controlled building.
The Sullivan County Jail in Monticello is a very outdated facility. Despite the poor conditions that have existed there for decades-and demands by Albany to close it down- county legislators for years have chosen to do practically nothing to address the situation.
That recently changed.
During the summer, the NYS Comptrollers Office issued a report saying that the delay in building the jail was costing taxpayers money-and that the County should build a new jail sooner than later.
Up to that point, the estimated cost of a new jail was an astronomical $80 million, and with major budgetary problems already in place, county legislators chose to basically place this issue on the back burner.
This NYS Comptroller's report stated the obvious-that we still need to build a new jail.
But it was a very irresponsible report from a fiscal point of view. It falsely argued that the county could build an $80 million dollar jail without negatively impacting the County's credit rating and without imposing a huge new tax burden on the taxpayers.
Somehow, the Comptroller's office inconceivably figured that the new debt in building a jail could be recovered from "savings" generated from the new jail. They argued that the high cost would be offset by savings generated by the layoff of several jailers (due to the automation arrived from a state of the art facility) and the revenue generated from inboarding prisoners from other counties, the state, and the Feds.
Those arguments are irresponsibly premised on facts and figures that may or may not exist at the time the jail is ready to open.
Over the past several years, county legislative boards took some preliminary steps to meet the daunting challenges of building a new, costly jail. They bought a proposed site on Pittaluga Road in the Town of Thompson and executed a contract with a company, LaBella Associates, with a good reputation for construction of municipal buildings, including jails.
But because of poor leadership in the county government center, to date, the County has paid (and wasted) millions to LaBella for initial work on the prospective new jail with little to show for it.
LaBella has never demonstrated a need or desire to bring costs down without sacrificing quality, notwithstanding legislative mandates and taxpayer pleas.
What's worse, is that during LaBella's tenure, the cost of the jail skyrocketed from $50 million to $110 million and then settled at $80 million, a figure that was subsequently accepted without question as the minimum amount needed to erect the new facility.
So at the same time that the County was buying time, it was convinced that a less expensive jail was impossible and failed to seek alternative prices.
Here's the good news: With matters looking grim in terms of the State Comptroller demanding that the county move forward with the construction of a $80 million dollar jail sooner rather than later, I fortuitously received a recommendation from a Herkimer County legislator (where they face the same challenge) to contact Goldberg Group Architects (GGA) based out of a St. Joseph, Missouri to obtain an alternate cost and construction assessment.
After making the initial contact and several conversations later, I arranged with GGA to meet the new Jail task force, Sheriff Mike Schiff, and county officials and staff.
As a result, GGA is now estimating it could build a 300+-bed facility on that already-acquired property off Route 17's Exit 104 in Monticello for as little as $40 million, which is a much cheaper (half the $80 million) price to build a new jail.
Where it stands now, GGA will be submitting a new formal proposal to build a less costly new jail for Sullivan County that would comply with all the demands of the Department of Corrections in Albany, at half the cost, at half the debt service, and without the terrible strain that an $80 million jail would cast on our county finances and taxpayers.
But our County Legislators should not stop there either. If for some reason the GGA intitiative does not pan out, then we must continue to scour the nation to find others who can and will build what our county needs at a reasonable cost.
To their credit, this new legislature gets it. We desperately need a new jail in Sullivan County.
It's time to move forward in a fiscally prudent manner and put the years of inaction and waste behind us.