What does it take to actually save some money in New York state? Despite a multibillion-dollar deficit, recession and Wall Street’s woes, the Senate Republicans, giving up any pretense of fiscal conservatism, have amended the executive budget to undo some sensible savings. And the new governor, David Paterson, in his eagerness to get a budget without a protracted battle, has consented to the changes. Our leaders, unlike before, are getting along, but they’re also getting the state into further trouble.
One of the changes would be to keep open four upstate prisons, including minimum-security Camp McGregor in Wilton. With the inmate population down sharply in recent years, and expected to stay that way for the foreseeable future, these facilities have many empty beds. Yet the state is paying millions to maintain and staff them.
This isn’t a law-and-order issue — even former Gov. George Pataki, a hard-liner on criminal justice matters, tried to close these prisons in the past, only to be thwarted by the Legislature. Nor is it good public policy — the vast majority of the inmates come from New York City, and it makes little sense to house them upstate, so far from their homes and families, if the aim is to successfully integrate them into society after release. What this is mostly about is saving prison guard jobs in depressed upstate communities (Wilton isn’t one of them). That’s a reason to keep the facilities open, but an insufficient one.
The same goes for two juvenile facilities that will be kept open, one south of Buffalo in Cattaraugus County and the other in the Bronx. Both have lots of empty beds, each of which costs state taxpayers between $140,000 and $200,000 per year. The Bronx facility is also in very bad shape, needing $8 million in capital improvements. The state Office of Children and Family Services had proposed closing these facilities and using the savings for community-based programs that work with the entire family — which not only are much cheaper but have much lower recidivism rates, based on the experience of New York City.
The last change has to do with state police who have been serving as school resource officers. Eliot Spitzer wanted to reassign them to crime-ridden communities upstate. Using highly trained, well-paid troopers in schools is an extravagance, and an unnecessary one at that. Whether they are there for security, education or as role models, a retired policemen could do the job just as well for much less cost.
Maintaining these programs will mean that other, more worthy ones will have to be cut or the state will have to find ways to raise additional revenue, such as tax increases or new fees. The only thing we can be sure of is that it will all be decided in secret, just like in the past.