Putnam Urges County Control of Jail Staffing

Also, criticizes state demand that bars serve food

The Putnam County Legislature voted 9-0 earlier this month to urge the state to allow counties to oversee, and reduce, jail staffing. Currently, state law dominates. 

“This is a home-rule issue,” Legislator Joseph Castellano (R-Brewster) said during the Aug. 7 meeting of the Legislature, which was held by audio conference. 

The resolution adopted by the Legislature reflected materials distributed by the New York State Association of Counties, including a letter that John Marren, its president, sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In it, Marren noted that because of state legal reforms and other changes, New York’s county jails have 11,566 fewer inmates than they did last year, a 44 percent decrease.  

According to the Putnam resolution, legislation modeled by the NYSAC would give county officials and sheriffs “shared authority” with the state to determine staffing levels.

Legislators approved the resolution with little discussion. 

Questions about staffing at the county jail arose in May at a Protective Services Committee meeting, when Neal Sullivan (R-Mahopac) said although he believed staffing was at full capacity, the facility was only 50 percent occupied. (Putnam’s 128-bed jail averaged 33 inmates a day in July, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.) He asked Sheriff Robert Langley Jr. whether the state corrections commission could analyze staffing needs.

Langley replied that shifting personnel from dormant jail programs allows them to fill in elsewhere, saving money in overtime; he also said the jail is cutting costs overall. A month later, he reported that he had contacted the state commission, which was willing to conduct an evaluation but said it could not do so until 2021.

Statewide bail-law reforms, which took effect this year, have helped keep some jail cells empty, although Langley said at a forum in Garrison in February that the Putnam jail population was “in slow decline before the bail reform law” and that local crime had dropped by 25 percent in each of the preceding two years.

Drinks and food

In an Aug. 11 meeting, Nancy Montgomery (D-Philipstown) cast the only vote against a measure calling on the governor to overturn his order requiring that bars serve food with all drinks to operate under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Legislator William Gouldman (R-Putnam Valley), who formerly owned and managed restaurants in New York City, recused himself. The other seven legislators voted for it. 

The resolution had failed earlier that day to clear the Legislature’s three-person Economic Development Committee when Gouldman abstained and Montgomery declined to second a motion by Legislator Amy Sayegh (R-Mahopac) to send it to the full Legislature for consideration. However, when the Legislature convened in a special session to approve a lawsuit settlement (See Page 1), a majority of legislators agreed to take up the resolution and passed it.

The executive order “is a perfect example of government overreach,” Legislator Paul Jonke (R-Southeast) said at the Economic Development meeting, describing Cuomo as “a governor who’s gotten nothing right in the last six months. The restaurant owners that I speak to are tired of the overreach. They are trying to run their businesses. They are trying to survive.” 

Jonke maintained that proprietors know how to keep customers safe.

Carl Albano (R-Carmel) said that unless COVID-19 cases resurge, restaurants and bars should be able to operate without limits. “When a person has a drink or eats a meal, they are going to take their mask off,” he said. “I don’t see how it makes any difference” and the rule “just makes it more difficult for businesses.”

While Montgomery acknowledged that the executive order is frustrating, she noted that it’s temporary and designed “to protect the public from COVID-19.”

A longtime restaurant professional, she said bar patrons who only drink tend to move around, putting other customers at risk, while patrons who dine typically remain at their tables. She also said she recently had seen bars with patrons drinking “shoulder-to-shoulder. Nobody is wearing a mask and nobody is eating.”

Montgomery challenged depictions of the issue as the economy versus public health. “It’s about public health and the economy,” she said. In general, she continued, “I do hope for more action to begin to respond to the COVID crisis. We have not responded or asked pertinent questions” about Putnam’s policies, “so we are once again sending another resolution to the state. Why don’t we take care of our own?”

Holly Crocco contributed reporting.

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