Prison communities deserve ‘host-community benefits package’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 August 2013 at 12:00 am

State should pay $1 per inmate per day to help prison towns offset some of the negatives

Photos by Tom Rivers – Albion Correctional Facility looms large at the end of Washington Street in Albion. The site is the largest women’s prison in the state with 1,050 inmates.

ALBION – 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 part of “host-community benefits package” to help counter some of the negatives. Albion town officials were never swayed, and denied the project.

When wind power companies built the giant industrial turbines 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. Albion is home to two state prisons. It’s time the community starts receiving a “host-community benefits package” for these sites.

The Albion Correctional Facility is the largest women’s prison in the state with 1,050 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.

About three decades ago the state, when it was in a prison-building spree, constructed the medium-security Orleans Correctional Facility. This one today has 710 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.

Together the two prisons consume about 500 acres. I think they also have a blighting effect on some nearby properties, discouraging housing development near the prisons.

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 rate.

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 isn’t made of money. So I think the prison communities should give the state a deal and make it a simple formula. The state should give each prison community $1 a day per inmate.

In Albion, the two prisons have 1,760 inmates. The state should pay $1,760 a day or $642,400 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.

The Orleans Correctional Facility is lined with a razor-wire fence. The facility was built on Gaines Basin Road about three decades ago.

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 is too cheap and I’d welcome our state representatives to push for more. If you have a maximum security prison in your town, you should get double the rate.)

The prisons provide jobs and offer some benefits to the communities. The corrections workers and other employees spend money at local gas stations and businesses, boosting our local economy and generating some sales tax for the local and state governments.

But many of these workers don’t live in the communities where the prisons are located. The prison communities are serving as regional job outlets, with many employees driving from outside the community for the jobs. For the Albion prisons, Batavia, Medina, Buffalo and other communities get the benefit of decent-paying jobs for their residents but those communities don’t bear the negative costs of providing services and having good land gobbled up by these sites.

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.

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.

The prisons feel like a black hole, sucking the life out of a big section of communities across the state. New York should help offset that with some money.