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Cuomo: $10m if we close your prison

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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Opposition to north country prison closures remains as stiff as ever for the region's legislative delegation, despite the prospect of $10 million in economic development aid.


"It does not soften my opposition to closure," said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. But "it's certainly better than getting nothing."


Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said that with a statewide decline in prisoner population, New York must close some of its medium- and minimum-security correctional facilities to help deal with an estimated $10 billion budget gap.


Previous governors have failed in such attempts, including former Gov. David A. Paterson, whose administration included Ogdensburg Correctional Facility on a closure list in 2010. North country legislators, with state Senate Republican support, successfully mounted a campaign to reverse the decision.


Mr. Cuomo has taken a different tack. Instead of including specific prisons to close on the budget, he will convene a task force to study the issue, with the goal of getting rid of 3,500 beds in the system.


As a sort of carrot to soften the economic blow that opponents say will occur if a prison is closed, Mr. Cuomo proposed $10 million to communities where prisons are closed, along with assistance from the Empire State Development Corp.


"What we're hoping is that the downstate communities might not see the value in their prisons, and they might go for the $10 million," said James E. Reagen, spokesman for state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.


Mr. Reagen said that prisons in downstate communities are sitting on land that is much more valuable than prisons upstate, so it would be easier to redevelop those areas.


"Before you choose which prisons to close, let's do a reuse study and determine where you can actually use the facilities," he said. "That should be one of the factors."


Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, noted that some of the details on the $10 million were unclear, so his opinion wasn't yet fully formed. For example, the governor didn't specify who, exactly, would receive the money.


But in general, he said, "In the long run, the $10 million will not offset the jobs and the money that is brought into the community over the years. You look at the payrolls, you add that all up, the $10 million is not going to replace the families that rely on those kinds of jobs."


Citing low overtime costs and low absenteeism among workers, north country legislators say the region's prisons should fare well if a task force were to study which prisons to close, because, they say, the facilities are more efficient than their downstate counterparts.


But if the task force closes a prison in the region, legislators won't be able to hold up approval of the budget as a way to fight it. That's because the task force won't make recommendations until 30 days after the budget is approved. In 2010, Ogdensburg Correctional Facility was spared from closure during budget negotiations.


The Republican leadership in the Senate might be more receptive to the $10 million idea than it has been in the past, when no incentive was attached.


"I think this is a great option for those communities who are going to lose prison jobs," Sen. Thomas W. Libous of Binghamton, the party's deputy majority leader, said Tuesday in Albany. "It's one thing to consolidate; it's another thing to give an opportunity for a community to do something with a vacant facility."


Republican Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, signaled no immediate opposition to the prison closure task force at an impromptu news conference after Mr. Cuomo unveiled his budget Tuesday in Albany.


"I'd like to discuss that with the senators who have prisons in their district to get their feelings on that," he said.

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