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Holding Center expected to be heated issue at Erie County budget hearing

A row of jail cells
File Photo

Tonight's Erie County Legislature public hearing on the proposed county budget is likely to be a far more active session than usual.

Usually, the budget hearing is a procession of different groups and agencies looking for more money that the budget proposal calls for. It's not unusual to have some people show up to argue the budget has to be cut to cut taxes.

This year, critics of the operations of the Erie County Holding Center will be there at 6 p.m. to say the budget shouldn't be passed until hot water problems at the Holding Center are resolved. Refusing to pass a budget means County Executive Mark Poloncarz' plan would go into effect automatically.

Myles Carter told a news conference Sunday afternoon there are sections of the Holding Center without hot water for months and conflicting agencies.

"They further say the Erie County Holding Center is leased county space and the responsibility of the boiler falls under the responsibility of the Division of Building and Grounds. The Sheriff's Department has a $126 million budget for 2021 and requesting a $16.6 million increase for 2022. That's nearly a 13% increase, with no plan to restore the human rights that are being violated here," Carter said.

Activists gather at the Erie County Holding Center Sunday.
Mike Desmond
Activists gather at the Erie County Holding Center Sunday.

The Holding Center has been having some hot water problems since last year, with some past repairs and another set of repairs coming.

The future of the facility and the county jail in Alden are under study, as the number of inmates shrinks. There may be some reluctance to spend much money until the study is done and the new sheriff weighs in on plans.

Activist Shaimaa Aakil said it isn't building age, it's disregard for inmates.

"It's not, 'Oh no, the buildings are too old. Oh no, we don't know how.' This is 2021. A lack of innovation is not an excuse for any administration to not be able to provide hot water," Aakil said. "So I understand that that's what they are going to try to play it. But, honestly, it's pretty simple. They're simply not prioritizing the safety of their inmates."

Aakil said the deaths of 32 inmates during the long career of Sheriff Tim Howard reflects that lack of concern.

"The way that this building has been so closed off and the lack of transparency is what is breeding part of the problem, that people don't know what's going on in there. We need to know what's going on in there," said activist Victoria Ross.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.