Governor Andrew Cuomo has little hope of closing the state’s projected budget gaps over the next few years if he doesn’t continue to clamp a tight lid on state operations costs — and to that end, he’s pushing for the closure and consolidation of more state prisons and institutions for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

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The latest shoe to drop is the closure of four more correctional facilities, which is expected to generate a savings of $30 million a year. The move was announced last Friday, ensuring it received limited attention in weekend news media coverage. From a budgetary standpoint, however, Cuomo deserves more attention and credit for his institutional downsizing moves—even though he isn’t promoting them with anything approaching the hype he reserves for, say, token “tax cuts” in a budget that actually raised overall taxes.

Despite objections from the correctional officers’ union and resistance from legislators in affected areas, Cuomo’s first three state budgets have resulted in the closure of nine prisons, most recently Bayview and Beacon women’s correctional facilities. Friday’s marks the first time Cuomo has used the governor’s statutory authority, outside the annual budget process, to unilaterally shutter facilities provided he gives at least one year’s notice.

The facilities due to close on July 26, 2014 are Monterey Shock (Schuyler County), and three medium security facilities: Butler (Wayne County), Chateaugay (Franklin County) and Mt. McGregor (Saratoga County). The governor’s press release said the facilities are no longer needed due to the “demographics of the inmate population and the steep decline in imprisoned drug offenders.” The 685 prison guards who now work at these facilities will be offered transferred to others, preferably nearby, Cuomo’s office said.

Cuomo’s new prison closures are the latest in a series of cutbacks, which probably represent the broadest and most concerted facility downsizing effort by any New York governor in recent history. In addition:

  • Cuomo’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities announced Friday it will close four institutional campuses over the next four years: O.D. Heck in Schenectady, Brooklyn Development Center in Brooklyn, Broome Developmental Center in Binghamton and Bernard M. Fineson Developmental Center in Queens. The net savings is small, because much of the money now spent on these facilities will be redirected to community-based services.
  • Earlier this month, the Cuomo administration announced a multi-year plan to shrink the state’s network of 24 in-patient mental health facilities to a network of 15 “Regional Centers of Excellence.” This is expected to result in savings of $40 million a year when fully implemented.*
  • Since Cuomo took office, the state Office of Children and Family Services has shut down seven upstate juvenile detention facilities that were predominantly housing youths from New York City, with two more closures on the way.  Most of the institutional population is being redirected to downstate facilities under his “Close to Home” initiative.

While the fully effective annual savings from all these moves is barely one-tenth of one percent of the $90 billion state operating funds budget, the political calculus of facility closures always has been daunting for governors.

For example, Cuomo’s latest move is already getting some legislative blowback — as in this news release from state Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Elmira, who says he supports downsizing but believes the facilities in his area deserve to stay open. Indeed, O’Mara or other lawmakers might, in isolation, be able to make a credible programmatic case that their facilities should be saved while others, spared the axe under the governor’s current plans, should be closed. But the Legislature ultimately has to be conscious of the same tight bottom line as the governor: at the end of the day, with the 2014-15 budget gap projected at $2.2 billion, growing to over $3 billion by 2016-17, something’s got to give — especially since lawmakers also consistently push for higher spending on school aid, which adds much more to the budget.

And O’Mara, in particular, might use the added loss of state institutional jobs in Elmira to spotlight Cuomo’s failure to move forward with environmental regulations that would allow natural gas hydrofracking, which would have economic benefits offsetting state cutbacks in the Southern Tier.

* From Empire Center’s 2010 “Blueprint for a Better Budget“:

[The] state’s expensive system of mental hospitals and treatment centers … are the major reason why New York’s mental health spending is more than twice the national per-capita average. As of 2004, while only 10 percent of the 500,000 New Yorkers in mental health programs were housed in one of the state’s inpatient psychiatric facilities, about one-third of the total mental health budget was spent on their case.However, past gubernatorial proposals to close or merge facilities repeatedly have been rejected by the Legislature. The state’s 2007 law authorizing civil commitment of sex offenders has only added to mental health institutional costs.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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