It took 20 years, but Cortland County finally made some progress in 2016 to fix its overcrowded and rapidly deteriorating jail.
However, it simply recycled failed solutions for its solid waste budget troubles.
The jail opened with 50 beds in 1991, so poorly designed that it’s the only one like it in America. It was declared obsolete before it ever opened.
The county received state approval to add 13 beds in 1997 and 30 more beds in 2014 by turning recreation space into a dormitory facility.
But those are temporary solutions, and the county has been under orders since then to fix the jail problem.
In 2016, it typically had custody of 100 or more inmates and it expects to spend $1 million to board out the excess at other counties’ jails.
By spring, Sheriff Mark Helms and the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee were ready to make their case to the public: a $38.5 million, 150-bed facility that would also house other Sheriff’s Department functions, including investigators, the road patrol, dispatching and administrative offices.
Not so fast. Opponents said the county couldn’t afford $38.5 million. They said the county was too quick to put people in jail, and they said a proposed site on Route 13 in South Cortland was popular with commercial developers.
By July, legislators had built enough consensus to spend $1.9 million to fund design and to dedicate income from casino tax revenue — about $200,000 a year — to defray the cost of construction.
In August, citing in part a Cortland Standard analysis that showed the county could, if planned well, build a jail without raising the property tax levy, legislators voted to move forward with the project. They designated 73 acres on Route 13 in South Cortland, which had been donated by the company that developed the neighboring Tractor Supply Co. store, the site for the facility.
The county hired SMRT Architects of Latham, which began the design process in October.
Lawmakers have yet to decide what features the jail will include, and are considering a 200-bed facility that could expand to 230 beds, rather than the initial 150-bed facility.
If they keep the timeline, the jail will be open in a couple of years.
Committee recycles failed landfill plan
That’s a faster solution than solving an $800,000 budget gap in the county’s solid waste operations.
At the end of 2015, legislators voted on, and defeated, a plan to import up to 5,000 tons of Onondaga County’s incinerator ash to cover its landfill.
The deal was seen as a precursor to a larger plan to import up to 30,000 tons of ash to fill the landfill.
Following that effort’s failure, legislature Chairman Don Boyden (R-Homer, Preble, Scott) replaced Solid Waste Committee Chairman Tom Hartnett (D-Cortland) with Joseph Steinhoff (R-Cortlandville). Steinhoff stepped down a month later citing personal reasons, and was replaced by Charles Sudbrink (R-Cincinnatus, Freetown, Taylor, Willet).
Sudbrink said he would throw a variety of options at his committee to reduce the gap. Other than minor efforts to harvest timber at the landfill in Solon, he didn’t.
Instead, following a summer of trying to build consensus, he sent to the committee another version of the ash-for-cover deal. This time, Cortland County would ship up to 3,800 tons of recyclables a year to Onondaga County in return for up to 5,000 tons of incinerator ash in a plan he said would reduce the $800,000 deficit by $215,000 a year.
The committee’s unanimous vote followed an inappropriate executive session, and just before the full Legislature voted in October on the plan, Sudbrink revealed to them the results of a study that experts said was biased and was funded by Covanta Energy — which runs the Jamesville trash incinerator on behalf of the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency and stood to benefit from the deal.
That measure failed, too.
The Solid Waste Committee did discuss one other plan — flow control, which would require haulers who collect Cortland County trash to bring it to the county’s landfill in Solon, but took no action on it.
How much more trash would that generate? Legislator John Troy (D-Cortland) said earlier estimates placed that figure between 7,000 and 9,000 tons.
A 2014 solid waste management plan suggested 20 percent of the county’s municipal solid waste — about 5,200 tons a year — is taken outside the county.
At $60 a ton, flow control would generate between $312,000 and $540,000 a year.
The county did consider options about reducing losses in its recycling operation, and pursued both, even though they were mutually exclusive. The county’s recycling center, run by Casella Waste Management, accounted for more than $400,000 of the $800,000 gap.
Option one was to resume county control of the facility on Pendleton Street. Sudbrink estimated the county could save $75,000 a year, although those savings were projected based on the failed ash-for-cover deal. The Legislature voted in December to adopt the plan.
Simultaneously, Sudbrink negotiated with Casella — inappropriately — to reduce the county’s bill. When he was told he couldn’t do that without seeking other proposals, the county issued a request for them in mid-month, with exactly one — Casella’s — returned by Dec. 27.
The solid waste committee will have a special meeting Thursday to consider that proposal, followed by the full Legislature on Jan. 10.
Until then, the county must operate the center, itself.
For more of 2016’s top stories, check out our year-in-review roundups.