Suffolk County's budget has sprung a new $3-million hole because state correction officials are requiring the county to send 128 prisoners to jails outside the county, sheriff officials disclosed Wednesday.
The state Commission of Correction decision, which took effect Oct. 13, is costing Suffolk $125 per prisoner, or $16,000 a day or about $500,000 a month.
The correction commission had been giving Suffolk County variances from state rules to allow the county to house 511 more inmates at its facilities in Riverhead and Yaphank than normally is allowed -- by using practices such as double bunking and bedding inmates in common spaces -- because the county is building a $156 million jail in Yaphank for 440 prisoners.
However, the commission withdrew its waivers for 128 beds following Tropical Storm Irene when commission officials, for safety reasons, ordered the sheriff to move inmates out of a fabric and metal-framed temporary building in Yaphank and into Nassau's jail and Rikers Island.
"The commission's decision to modify and revoke variances because of Mother Nature is going to cost Suffolk taxpayers approximately $500,000 a month at a time when they can least afford it," said Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, in a Tuesday letter to the commission.
Jessica Scaperotti, commission spokeswoman, said, "The action was taken so that sufficient habitable space would be available for emergency evacuation of Suffolk inmates from housing areas vulnerable to natural or civil emergencies." She added the "need became apparent" during the tropical storm "when there was no suitable alternative housing space" to the fabric and metal structure.
DeMarco said there was no need to move the inmates, noting the structure is designed to handle winds of 120 miles per hour; Irene recorded wind of only 38 miles per hour in Yaphank.
Michael Sharkey, DeMarco's chief of staff, said loss of the variance would increase the county's 2011 cost of housing prisoners outside Suffolk from the $1.85 million estimated in County Executive Steve Levy's 2012 budget to $4.9 million.
Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) said, "The big boys in Albany are killing the county. "
"This is purely punitive," Levy said. "They are imposing an extra cost because they didn't like the sheriff's hurricane plan."
Sheriff's aides also disclosed new difficulties with plans to hire 100 new correction officers, which could possibly delay the new jail's April opening.
A class of 50 new correction recruits planned to begin Oct. 31 will only have 45 recruits because only that many qualified. That also means a second class of 50, which were due to begin training early next year, will be delayed until a new civil service list is produced in March. A new test, for which 7,300 have signed up, is to be given Nov. 19. But the eligible list for hiring will not likely be ready until March, according Alan Schenider, civil service head.
Sharkey said once the list is complete, it will take the department five months to vet top scorers and train recruits. He said it will be up to the commission to determine if the jail could open with fewer staffers.