Schoharie County got a boost recently to its ongoing appeal to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reconsider its recommendation that the county rebuild its jail and emergency communications center.
The county has submitted two appeals in the past 31⁄2 years urging FEMA to fund construction of a new jail on higher ground rather than rebuilding the old one, which sits in an area designated a flood plain by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The building sustained extensive damage in 2011 as the result of flooding related to Tropical Storm Irene.
In a letter dated Feb. 10 to FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asks the agency to expedite its review of the county’s appeals and “respond promptly.”
“FEMA’s delay in responding to requests by the county has caused significant financial burden along with vulnerability of emergency preparedness operations, a fact that should be especially significant to the federal agency tasked with emergency preparedness,” the letter states.
Since the facility was flooded in August 2011, the county has been sending its inmates to the Albany County Correctional Facility at a cost of $90,000 to $100,000 a month, according to county Treasurer William Cherry.
The first floor of the two-floor facility in Schoharie is “gutted” and empty now, said Cherry. The county’s E-911 communications center, emergency management office and sheriff’s administrative offices operate from the second floor, which he said are heated and air conditioned with a rented HVAC unit.
“Should another flood happen, we will be blind and deaf once again because that building must be evacuated by law,” he said.
Cherry notes that not only Gillibrand but “all of our state officials, all of our state agencies and every part of Schoharie County government [are] all on the same page that it makes no sense to rebuild that existing public safety facility.”
A letter to the county from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in January 2014 concludes, “While building a new facility outside of the flood hazard area will be more expensive in the short term, it will save significant flood damage expenses in the long run and may save lives.”
And Cherry now says new construction may not actually be more expensive. With repairs to the old facility plus “Herculean” flood mitigation measures mandated by FEMA — such as flood gates, concrete barriers and raised roadways — the cost would be around $40 million to rebuild on the current site.
A new facility, which he envisions as a 60- to 65-bed jail with modern efficiencies in terms of both energy use and corrections practices, would likely cost between $30 and $40 million, he said.
The old facility was built around 1990 and had 80 beds, although the county’s average inmate population ranges from 35 to 45, said Cherry.
As it stands, FEMA is offering 75 percent funding for reconstruction of the jail. Cherry said the other 25 percent would come from New York state under a special provision following Tropical Storm Irene, but the state is unlikely to fund construction in a flood zone.
“New York state government, rightfully so, is saying, ‘We won’t let you rebuild in the flood plain.’ State law prohibits it,” said Cherry. “FEMA’s position is that we have to rebuild the existing, damaged jail. And there remains Schoharie County, stuck between a rock and a hard place.”