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October 9, 2019 - 10:20pm

Plans for new $65 million jail put on hold while governor dawdles on sales tax legislation

posted by Howard B. Owens in sales tax, jail, news, batavia.
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Many months of effort by Genesee County to replace its aging, legally out-of-compliance jail came to a standstill Wednesday night when the County Legislature, by consent, agreed to hold off on new jail plans until Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs sales tax agreement legislation that is necessary for the county to fund the jail.

The jail could cost as much as $65 million, which is money the county must borrow (through bonds) and the county won't be able to get those bonds without the 40-year sales tax agreement that will generate the revenue to pay back the loans.

The county and the city hammered out the agreement over the course of months of negotiations about how to divide the local portion of sales tax collected in the county and both elected bodies approved the agreement. The necessary legislation then went to the Assembly and Senate and was approved.

The bill now sits on the Senate president's desk awaiting a request by Gov. Cuomo to see it.  

He hasn't requested it and nobody knows why. It might be that there are 500 other bills on the Senate president's desk awaiting Cuomo's request, but nobody is sure if that's really the issue. Attempts by local officials to get an answer from any source, including the governor's office, have gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, the city and county don't have a sales tax agreement in place for 2020 and if they're going to have an agreement, absent the governor signing the 40-year-agreement bill, they must act fast.

The two municipalities could agree to extend the current agreement by a year or even extend it for 10 years. Either option could be approved on the State Comptroller's signature, without new legislation, but either option would also delay building a new jail by either length of time.

Once the governor requests the bill, he has 10 days to sign it or veto it, or he could do nothing, which is called a pocket veto. He could also let it sit on the Senate president's desk until Dec. 31, which is also a pocket veto.

If the bill isn't approved before Dec. 31, the whole process of approving a sales tax agreement would need to start from the beginning next year.

Neither the county, of course, nor the city, can wait until Dec. 31 to see if the governor will sign the bill. They need to approve a new sales tax agreement, if this one isn't approved, within weeks so there is time to get it approved by the comptroller's office and have it in place for 2020.

If there's no sales tax agreement, the county and city will not be able to fund normal government operations typically covered by sales tax revenue.

Chairman Robert Bausch is drafting a letter to the corrections commissioners informing them of the bind the county is in and asking if they can intervene with the governor's office.

County Manager Jay Gsell said the commission has been patient with the county over its current substandard jail on the premise that the county has been working toward building a new facility. 

Sheriff William Sheron said that a letter from the county might help extend that patience and at least put the commissioners on notice of the issue the county is facing.

Wednesday's meeting was initially called for the entire legislature to discuss jail plans and decide what would be included in the jail -- such as how many beds and pods construction contractors would be asked to bid on.

Some of that discussion took place, with an apparent agreement being reached on a four-pod jail with 184 beds. That would give jail staff the most flexibility in maintaining order and keeping different types of jail inmates, based on mental health issues and other factors, in appropriate housing.

After that discussion, Bausch brought up the sales tax issue and said he didn't see how the county could authorize the architect to start designing the facility because once the design is done, without a sales tax agreement, the county wouldn't be able to put the project out to bid because it couldn't get the project bonded.

"That would be pretty embarrassing for the county," he said.

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