Schoharie County has learned it won’t have to cover the entire cost of boarding inmates while its flood-wrecked jail remains out of commission, but it still doesn’t know whether the jail can be rebuilt or a replacement will have to be constructed from scratch.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s agreement to pay 70 percent of the inmate boarding costs represents a roughly $2 million victory for the county, which appealed FEMA’s initial rejection, county flood recovery coordinator William Cherry said Friday.
More than 40 inmates were evacuated as the nearby Schoharie Creek crept closer to the county Public Safety Facility on Depot Lane in the village last year.
Also ousted from the building were staff for the 911 emergency communications center and the entire Emergency Management Office.
Since then, the county has been losing out on revenue from housing other counties’ inmates while paying Albany County between $50,000 and $60,000 monthly to house Schoharie County prisoners.
Cherry said FEMA’s agreement will come with a retroactive payment of $700,000 already spent on inmate boarding.
“It’s just a great win for our county,” said Cherry, who is also the county treasurer.
Work is well under way on a $9.1 million reconstruction project at the county office complex farther south in Schoharie, and engineers and architects have been devising plans to rebuild the Public Safety Facility over the past month.
Up until recently, the county and its contractors have been working on the belief FEMA intends to cover costs of retrofitting the Public Safety Facility where it sits. But a recent designation by the local floodplain administrator puts back on the table the possibility of building a new jail beyond the reach of floodwaters.
Schoharie Village Flood Plain Administrator Joseph Nelson late last month completed a review of damage and estimates for rebuilding and determined the repair cost estimate of $6.2 million, compared with the facility’s pre-disaster value of $9 million, means the building was “substantially damaged” by flooding from Tropical Storm Irene.
That designation, under federal mitigation regulations, means the facility would have to be rebuilt to withstand a 500-year flood, according to Nelson’s letter to the county.
“That one piece of paper is a multimillion-dollar document,” Cherry said.
It means FEMA would be expected to fund rebuild efforts to comply with building codes in the flood zone and meet state corrections regulations. Added to flood mitigation measures, this means a rebuild of the Public Safety Facility, taking into account “soft costs” like engineering and legal fees, could blossom to roughly $20 million.
FEMA spokesman Donald Caetano in an email Friday confirmed the agency will cover part of the inmate housing costs and said no decision has been made yet on the fate of the jail.
“FEMA is working closely with the applicant and [state Emergency Management Office] regarding the eligible options available to move forward in reference to the Schoharie County jail facility,” he said.
The cost of building a brand new jail somewhere else, Cherry said, can be roughly estimated at $30 million — putting FEMA in the position to decide which avenue to pursue. “We have no control at this point,” he added.
Fixing the jail where it is could take about two years while building a new facility could take up to four years, he said.
In the event FEMA decides it’s best to build a new jail in a place unlikely to flood again, Cherry said engineers are suggesting it be built on a parcel of land comparable in size to the current jail’s parcel between 3.4 and 4 acres in size.
It was unclear immediately Friday if the county has suitable land.