Jobs can't be bought -- even for $10 million.
That was the message from local officials Tuesday following the release of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive draft 2011-2012 state budget that features a 3,500-bed statewide reduction in the medium- and minimum-security prison population -- a move that could shutter several prisons.
State prisons have become one of the largest employers in the North Country and pump millions into local communities.
Within Cuomo's plan, a town that suffers a prison closure would receive $10 million in "economic transformation" grants, meant to allow a community grappling with a closure to seek a private replacement for the loss of jobs and cash-flow.
But local officials in communities that are built around the state prison system said they aren't willing to sacrifice year-round employment for a one-time infusion of cash.
"You can't make a trade-off for jobs," said Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava. "We've already spent millions on economic development. Take a look at the Adirondack Park. How many business have moved in here in the last 30 years?"
Cuomo's budget would tag $100 million to fund the economic grants for affected communities.
Last year, the 100-bed Moriah Shock Incarceration facility was one of three North Country prisons tagged for closure. Essex County brass concluded the military-style prison camp annually pumps $8 million into the county. It's also the largest employer in the small Adirondack town that was once the site of a large mining operation.
"It's harder to find a reuse in the Adirondacks," state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, said shortly after the executive budget's release.
Cuomo's budget doesn't provide a list of facilities identified for closure. He instead is forming a task force comprised of lawmakers and state officials that will finalize the plan.
Under Cuomo's proposal, the task force would have 30 days after the state budget is adopted to finalize the prison reduction plan. Cuomo cites data from the state Department of Correctional Services that argues prison populations have plunged 21 percent since their all-time high in the mid-1990s -- leaving thousands of medium- and minimum-security beds vacant.
Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Corrections Officers and Benevolence Association, the union that represents 23,000 state correction officers and staff, said the state's prisons are actually at 122 percent capacity. He said further cuts would pose a risk to staff and the public.
There's concern outside of the Adirondacks, too. But the stakes might not be as high.
Wilton could also face an exodus of state jobs if the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility is shuttered.
"It's certainly not like up in the Adirondacks, where the prisons are the major employer," said Wilton Supervisor Art Johnson. "But the loss of jobs is a major concern."
Last year, Wilton's minimum security site at Camp McGregor was closed, costing Wilton around 100 jobs.
"Finding a reuse for Mt. McGregor would be tough," Johnson said.
If the prison plan is implemented, the state Office of the Budget predicts $72 million in savings that could go towards paring down an estimated $10 billion state budget deficit.
"It's not about the industry of government," Cuomo said in his budget address. "It's about the people and the taxpayer."
Over the last four years, Little said she has seen the closure of two state prisons and a federal prison within her district. But with 10 remaining, state prisons are a significant source of jobs in the six-county region.
More than two years since its closure, the state has been unable to sell the former Franklin County prison facility at Camp Gabriels.
"I'm always concerned," Little said.
She said the smaller facilities in the region are what may be most at risk. But Little said she is also optimistic, because unlike last year, when then-Gov. David Paterson unilaterally drafted the closure list, freshly-elected Democrat Cuomo is seeking input.
"He's doing it the right way," LIttle said. "In the most recent budgets, we (legislators) haven't been involved."
Three state prisons in the lie in the district of Assemblyman Tony Jordan ,R-Jackson, who represents Washington County and parts of Saratoga and Rensselaer counties. Like Little, Jordan was pleased that Cuomo is acknowledging the economic role prisons play in the communities where they sit.
And he cautioned that reducing the number of beds may not actually lead to closures.
"I'm not sure that I would jump to that conclusion just yet," he said
While upstate Republicans traditionally support the state prison system that shuttles a largely downstate population northward, Democratic state lawmakers have blasted it for years. They argue that having inmates so far from their homes and families places undue stress on innocent bystanders and isn't cost effective.