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Suffolk panel: Study Foley retrofit into jail

The John J. Foley Skilled Nursing, which closed

The John J. Foley Skilled Nursing, which closed last month. (March 27, 2013) Credit: Doug Kuntz

Suffolk Legis. Kate M. Browning's proposal to study the feasibility of retrofitting the former county nursing home into jail space was sent to the full legislature Wednesday after she amended her plan to also allow efforts to sell or lease the complex to move forward.

The Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously to discharge the resolution, which could clear the way for a vote at the legislature's Sept. 12 meeting. "I think it's a common-sense step forward," Browning (WF-Shirley) said.

Her resolution calls for public works officials to determine within 120 days if the former Yaphank nursing home could be converted into jail space as a way to avoid or reduce spending another $100 million on a second phase of jail construction mandated by the state Commission on Corrections.

Browning said the former John J. Foley Skilled Nursing Facility, which was closed in June, could house specialized prisoners such as drunken drivers or young people whom the county is trying to keep from becoming repeat offenders. She also expanded her plan to consider its use as a drug detox center.

Her move comes after the county, under state mandate, opened a new $185-million first phase of the Yaphank jail in May with a capacity of 340 prisoners -- a complex that County Executive Steve Bellone derided as a "Taj Mahal." The former nursing home is next to the new jail.

Browning agreed to make a change after several lawmakers objected to a provision that would have temporarily halted the county from seeking proposals from those who might want to buy or lease the five-story building amid the county's ongoing $180-million budget shortfall.

"I agree that we should very seriously look at other uses," said Legis. Louis D'Amaro (D-North Babylon), committee chairman. "But my preference is that we not stop the other track."

Bellone aide Thomas Vaughan said the administration is putting the "finishing touches" on a request for proposals that will go out shortly.

He also noted that state corrections commission officials have indicated in emails with county budget officials that altering Foley could be too costly. "We trying to make an intelligent decision on how to dispose of the building," said Jon Schneider, deputy county executive. "But whatever we are doing we are working with the Commission on Corrections because they have the ability to pull millions of dollars worth of variances, so it's prudent to work with them."

The county currently has a variance to house 371 prisoners over capacity because it's planning additional construction.

However, Browning said questions on Foley's suitability for jail space should be left to Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco and the commission to decide, and not to budget aides. She also said the county's efforts to sell or lease the building could take a year or more because of unresolved legal issues regarding the property, now zoned residential, and the building, which exceeds town height limits.

County Attorney Dennis Brown said Suffolk is suing Brookhaven's Zoning Board of Appeals over its denial of a special permit that would have allowed the building to be used as a private nursing home, but that case is pending.

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