No prison task force; 3,700 beds gone

Prison closing decisions out of the hands of lawmakersBy BRIAN AMARAL



North country legislators are registering differing amounts of concern over the emerging details of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s prison closure plan.

When the budget agreement was first reached Sunday, legislators weren’t sure what Mr. Cuomo meant by “consulting” with the Legislature, or what he would consider as “criteria” — or whether either of those would be formalized.

It now has become clear the decision will rest entirely with Mr. Cuomo.

“I think when you do it this way with the governor and his Department of Correctional Services commissioner, you leave the legislators really in a weak position to do too much about it,” said Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, who has yet to make up his mind on his upcoming budget vote. “Hopefully, he will confer with us. He doesn’t have to. So I’m concerned that we get a fair approach for upstate prisons.”

Other north country legislators were more optimistic about doing away with the originally proposed task force and leaving the power with Mr. Cuomo.

“The task force that he proposed was dominated by members of the administration,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “So where there was a more formalized process for input, by virtue of the fact that his task force was dominated by the administration, obviously the administration would have been directing the task force.”

Mrs. Russell has said she likely will vote to approve the budget, and emerging details on prison closure don’t change that.

With a task force, the process “would have been more open and transparent,” Mrs. Russell said. But “I don’t know if the ultimate result would be all that different.”

The fact that the governor will decide which prisons to close is beneficial for the future of Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

“I think the governor has shown he’s a man of his word,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “He made the statement during the parade that (Ogdensburg Correctional Facility) would stay open.”

Mrs. Ritchie was referring to the Seaway Festival parade in Ogdensburg last summer, during which Mr. Cuomo, then a candidate for governor, said he would keep Ogdensburg Correctional Facility open.

That prison is only one of five in Mrs. Ritchie’s district; she’ll push to keep all of them open, she said.

That’s despite the possible carrot of millions in aid and tax benefits for communities affected by a prison closure.

A $50 million pot of money would be split among the communities. It’s not clear how many prisons will be closed, but the governor has targeted 3,700 beds, for savings of at least $72 million in this budget year and $112 million in the next budget year.

The Empire State Development Corp. also would dole out tax breaks to redevelop prison sites.

Leaders agree to budget (no prison task force; 3,700 beds gone) SUNDAY, MARCH 27, 2011 ARTICLE OPTIONS Reporting from Watertown, in my pajamas: Legislative leaders have agreed to a budget. There are still tons of details left to be decided, but it looks like they’re going after 3,700 beds. There is NOT going to be a task force! That’s pretty huge, folks. It’s at the governor’s sole discretion, with input from legislative leaders. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that the effect on the local economy where a prison is located would be considered, but legislators will have to take a big leap of faith on this one. Just got off the phone with a guy who works up in Ogdensburg. It took me about five minutes to convince him that this was real, that there would be no task force. When he was properly convinced, his reaction? “This is bad news.”

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