(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of editorials about policies that would help rural New York.)
New York State’s economic development strategy for many rural communities has often included bestowing upon them a prison.
The state sees the facilities as opportunities for good-paying jobs with benefits in areas in dire need of such positions.
Albion and Orleans County is home to two prisons, one for women inmates and the other for men. Both have about 1,000 inmates. Together they take up 500 acres of land just west of the Village of Albion.
That land is largely tax exempt, and has a deadening effect on the residential neighborhood on Washington, King and West State streets.
Many companies that bring in businesses that change the character of a community will offer a host-community benefits package to compensate for some of that impact.
When Waste Management made its pitch to open a landfill in Albion in the mid-1990s, the company offered the community $500,000 annually to lower the town taxes.
The company knew a landfill came with some negatives – an increase in truck traffic, seagulls, noise, odor, environmental worries and a stigma. The $500,000 was offered to help counter some of the negatives. Albion town officials were never swayed, and denied the project.
Wind power companies in the past decade have built several industrial turbine “wind farms” in Wyoming County and other parts of New York. The companies paid the host communities big bucks for having these 400-foot-high structures in the rural countryside. Some of the towns are taking in more than $1 million annually from the turbines, which has more than offset town taxes. Schools and the county government also get a piece of the pie from the turbines in Wyoming County.
Towns that allow “noxious uses” generally receive some compensation for dealing with the negative impacts. However, if you’re a prison town you don’t get such a package.
Yes, there are good jobs, and those workers spend money in the community – often filling up for gas on their way out of town.
The Albion community topped a combined $50 tax rate (town, village, school and county) in 2014, putting it in the top 10 in the Finger Lakes region for highest tax rate. (Medina led at $58.19 in 2014) Click here to see that report from the Empire Center.
I bring that up because Albion could use some money for having 500 acres consuming lots of services but generating little in tax revenue.
Here is a reasonable plan for a “host-community benefits package” for prison towns.
The Albion Correctional Facility is the largest women’s prison in the state with capacity for 1,243 inmates. The state has completed several construction projects at this prison in recent years, including a Special Housing Unit for inmates with discipline problems. This prison is highly visible along Washington Street at the west end of the village.
In the early 1980s, when the state was in a prison-building spree, it constructed the medium-security Orleans Correctional Facility. This one has a capacity for 1,082 male inmates.
Orleans Correctional looks like it’s out of a movie set, set along rural Gaines Basin Road with the tall razor-wire fence and the ominous guard towers.
The community gave up some good land for the prisons, land that could be tax-generating for houses, commercial development or even a cornfield. The state doesn’t pay village, town or county taxes for these properties. It does pay the school district a tiny amount –$6,822.61.
We send our fire department and ambulances over there for calls. Our first responders have to train for what-if scenarios at the prisons.
I think the community should be paid for providing some services to the prisons, and contending with the negatives that come with these sites.
What would be a fair host-community benefits package?
Orleans County has a 4 percent bed tax. If a visitor is staying in a bed and breakfast with a $100 a night charge, the customer is taxed the usual 8 percent sales tax plus another 4 percent for a bed tax. That generates $8 in sales tax and $4 for a bed tax if the room is $100.
Orleans County in the past has billed Genesee about $80 a day to house Genesee’s female inmates in the county jail in Albion. That’s the price Orleans has put out as a daily charge for the county jail. If we used that number for the state prisons (I would think the state prisons would be a higher cost) and multiplied that by the 4 percent bed tax, NYS would owe the community $3.20 in a daily bed tax per state inmate.
But the prisons are hardly hotels and the state’s pockets aren’t a bottomless pit. I think the prison communities should give the state a deal and make it a simple formula – $1 a day per inmate.
In Albion, let’s make it easy math and say both prisons have 1,000 inmates for 2,000 total. The state should pay $2,000 a day or $730,000 a year as a host community benefits package. I would divvy up this money using a typical PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) plan used by the Economic Development Agency. You take the tax rates from each municipality and calculate a pro-rated share of the money based on the rates.
In Albion, the town would get 10 percent of prison money, the county 20 percent, and the village and school district would each receive 35 percent, according to my plan. That would be about $73,000 for town, $146,000 for county and $255,500 each for both village and school district. (That would lower the village taxes by about 11 percent.)
State-wide there are 54,600 state inmates. At $1 a day, the state should pay the prison communities $19,929,000 each year. That money would be directed to communities that need it. The state put these prisons in towns that were economically depressed and have remained so. (Frankly, $1 a day is cheap and I’d welcome our state representatives to push for more. If you have a maximum security prison in your town, such as Attica, you should get double the rate.)
I know the prisons provide hundreds of jobs in Albion, but many of these workers don’t live in Albion or in the other communities where prisons are located. The prisons provide jobs in their regions, with the host community bearing the full burden by giving up so much land and having to provide services – water, sewer, etc. – that could be used for other industries.
The state already provides a host community package for communities with an industry that brings some societal ills. The State Legislature and governor have directed state money to communities with video gaming centers – Batavia, Hamburg and others.
The City and Town of Batavia, plus Genesee County share in that bounty each year because of Batavia Downs. Those communities use about $500,000 from a host community package to help offset taxes.
The gaming centers are advertised as attractions, drawing outsiders to the community to spend money at the race track and other businesses. The gaming centers are featured in tourism brochures. They are depicted as hip and trendy destinations.
But the prisons feel like a black hole, deadening neighborhoods and dominating a town’s identity.
The state spends about $4 billion annually for corrections. The prison-host aid would raise the corrections spending by a measly 0.5 percent. That’s half of 1 percent, and the money would go to communities in desperate need of tax relief.
Here is a sample resolution for the local governments to pass, pressing the governor and State Legislature to consider the issue:
RESOLUTION NO. 2, January 2017
WHEREAS, New York State is home to 54 prisons with 54,700 inmates;
WHEREAS, many of the correctional facilities are located in rural communities and don’t pay any village, town or county taxes (and only a tiny portion for school districts);
WHEREAS, the facilities are big water and sewer users, and need other government services (fire department and ambulance);
WHEREAS, the prisons have a negative impact on their immediate neighborhoods, depressing development;
WHEREAS, the prisons provide hundreds of good-paying jobs, but many of those workers don’t live in the host community of the prison;
WHEREAS, the host community of a prison unfairly shoulders the burden of the prisons, giving up big chunks of tax exempt land while still providing services to the prisons;
WHEREAS, New York State spends about $4 billion on corrections each year.
WHEREAS, New York should pay “prison towns” a host community benefits package of $1 per day per inmate which would total about $20 million annually – 0.5 percent of the corrections budget;
WHEREAS, paying a host community benefits package would direct needed revenue to many communities with the highest tax rates in their regions;
WHEREAS, other industries – landfills and industrial wind turbines – provide host community benefits packages to help offset some of the negative impacts to the host community.
WHEREAS, New York provides $29.3 million annually in assistance to communities with “gaming centers” to help with their costs of hosting those facilities;
WHEREAS, having a prison consumes more public resources and has a worse stigma than a “gaming center” such as Batavia Downs.
RESOLVED, the Legislature/Town Board/Village Board/Board of Education, call on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature to adopt a fair “host community benefits package” for prison towns;
RESOLVED, that the clerk of the Legislature/Village Board/Town Board/Board of Education shall forward copies of this resolution to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senator Robert Ortt, Assemblyman Steve Hawley and all others deemed necessary and proper.