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Sheriff: Splitting jail, safety complex means more costs

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

An unidentified man enters the Cortland County Jail in this May 2016 file photo. Questions remain about how the county would operate two facilities if the county Legislature decides to split up the public safety functions from the jail in a project to build a new jail that is far from a final design.

While Cortland County legislators juggle options on how to pay for an estimated $48 million new jail project, there is another cost they have yet to acknowledge, said Sheriff Mark Helms.

If the county were to build a new jail in Cortlandville, but keep the sheriff’s department functions at 54 Greenbush St. in Cortland, Helms said that would add a $290,000 cost per year on topw of the department’s $11 million budget.

However, that is just one of a couple options for the proposed jail. A new 148-bed jail with all the options, including a public safety complex and 911 center, is estimated at more than $48 million. Many legislators consider that cost to be unacceptable though, and are considering other options, such as a new jail without the sheriff’s administrative offices and 911 center.

No decision has been made, yet. Helms also acknowledged he isn’t even sure where the Legislature is with the decision.

The estimated additional cost would be due to needing to hire at least five extra people to work at the new jail: security, index clerks, maintenance workers and food service workers, Helms said.

“It is a concern to me,” Helms said. “It doesn’t seem to be a concern to everyone else.”

He said he tries to bring the issue up during every Legislature committee meeting on the jail, but the legislators tend to talk around it and have yet to comment on it.

Helms said he does not know if the additional cost would be a big challenge, but at some point it is going to have to be addressed and he is not sure if the Legislature is aware of it.

Legislator Sandra Price (D-Virgil, Harford), a member of the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee, said the committee has briefly looked at Helms’ concern.

“Just getting past the $48 million building has been a hurdle,” she said. “But we’ll have to look at all the options.”

Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee Chairman Joseph Steinhoff (R-Cortlandville) said it is not that the committee is not looking into the additional costs, it is looking into the entire costs of the project, including the bonds, and looking at cutting costs overall.

“The main thing for me is the cost,” Steinhoff said. “We simply cannot afford it (a new jail) as a county. Right now the cost structure is just estimates.”>

There are many aspects of the project Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Richard Bushnell (D-Cortland) said the Needs and Assessment Committee has not looked into.

Bushnell’s committee was initially in charge of the jail project, before the Needs and Assessment Committee took over the project in October to “slow things down.” He said the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee had things in motion with the project, moving it to phase two –– the design stage –– but not much else has been accomplished since the Needs and Assessment Committee took over.

One thing he said he is most disappointed with is he does not believe the Needs and Assessment Committee uses Helms or Undersheriff Budd Rigg enough.

“Mark and Budd are on top of what they need,” Bushnell said. “And the committee doesn’t use them.”

Helms said, there is no way the committee could know what he would need, if he were to have to manage two facilities, because no one has asked him.

“We haven’t done much together,” Helms said about working with the Legislature. “Legislators are just buckshotting considerations by just thinking it’s a good idea. But I could tell you its not a good idea.”

He said the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee, which was formed to make a decision on the jail, is “far from being open” with him. He said he usually only finds out what the committee has been planning when he attends the committee meetings.

Steinhoff said that if legislators have questions, they ask him at the meetings. And outside of the meetings, he said the legislators do their own research.

“I can’t mandate the legislators to talk to the sheriff,” he said.

Helms’ frustrations were also expressed during the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee meeting last month, and in an email sent to Steinhoff and Legislature Chairman Donnell Boyden (R-Homer, Preble, Scott).

At the committee meeting in April, Steinhoff said he knows Helms may be upset with him and the committee. But no matter what the legislators decide to do, there is going to be a burden on the taxpayers.

“Even if we do the minimum that we can, we are doubling the debt on this county,” Steinhoff said during the meeting.  

Despite Helms’ frustrations with a lack of communication, he said he is sure he and the Legislature will speak about the potential additional costs in the future. It may come up Wednesday, when he and legislators will meet with the state to further discuss the proposed jail. The Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee will then meet at noon the next day, where a resolution for the jail could be presented. However, the scope of the resolution may depend on the outcome of the county’s meeting with the state.

Price said the decision the committee makes depends on what happens at that meeting.

It is important for the county to show it is moving forward with the jail project, or the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would take away variances from the current jail. At the moment, for variances in the current jail, there are three rooms –– formerly rooms for special programs –– with four beds in each.

Helms said the first thing to go would be one bed from each room, causing the county to house out three people.

In 2016, it cost the county $340,285 to board out prisoners. Then adding overtime costs related to transport board outs and overcrowding the total comes to almost $400,000. The amount does fluctuate, as in 2015 the total cost was $387,405, and in 2014 it was $456,371.

The elimination of variances is not a pressing concern to Helms, at the moment. He said it is up to the Department of Corrections to make the decision to end the variances, but the state knows the county is trying to move forward with a new jail.

“They’ve (the state) been real good,” Helms said. “They work with you. Pulling the variances is not set as a threat, it just could happen at anytime.”

Helms said he understands the legislators have a hard job, he just gets frustrated with the lack of input from them.

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