November 30, 2021

49.8M jail design chosen

Second-most-costly option; choice goes to legislature

Cortland Standard file photo

A man enters the Cortland County Jail in this May 2016 file photo.

CORTLAND — A week after the Public Safety Needs and Assessment Committee voted down a resolution to move Cortland County’s jail project forward with a $49.8 million jail, the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee endorsed it Thursday.

The resolution is to move forward with Phase II — completing design work, finishing state-mandated environmental studies and getting the project ready to go out for bid — with the $49.8 million design — a 96,650-square-foot facility with 148 beds, sheriff and administration offices and the 911 center. That would also mean spending the rest of the $1.9 million allocated for the phase — about $1.4 million.

Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Richard Bushnell (D-Cortland) proposed the resolution toward the end of the meeting, and after little discussion it was endorsed, 4-1. Legislator George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer) was the sole opponent. He also voted against the idea at the Needs and Assessment meeting last week, saying he was concerned about how the county will pay for it.

Legislators Mary Ann Discenza (DCortland), Joseph Steinhoff (R-Cortlandville) and Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville) were absent.

“It will go to the full Legislature and let them discuss it,” Bushnell said.

That was his motive to bring up the resolution. He wanted to get something moved along for the Legislature to discuss before the end of the year.

“I can’t see waiting until next year and throwing it at a new Legislature,” Bushnell said after the meeting.

If the Legislature approves moving forward with Phase II at its Dec. 21 meeting, the project would be completed up to the bidding process for contractors. No bids would go out, and no construction on the Route 13 site would start until the Legislature approved that, too.

Regardless of whether the resolution is approved, it will be up to the Legislature next year — with eight new members — to either move the construction process forward or develop a new plan to address jail crowding.

The Needs and Assessment Committee was tasked with recommending a jail design for the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee to consider. It did not.

Last week, Legislature Chairman Donnell Boyden (R-Homer, Preble, Scott) said if the Needs and Assessment Committee — set to dissolve at the end of the year — could not pick a design, the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee could.

Latham architect firm SMRT, which has been in charge of the county’s jail project, presented five new options to the Needs and Assessment Committee last week, ranging from $57.9 million to $45 million.

Bushnell chose to recommend the $49.8 million design — the second most expensive option — because it’s a good starting point, having every option except for an extra pod that could be added later.

The design is just preliminary, he said, and once SMRT gets further into the process, changes could potentially reduce the price.

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms worked with SMRT to cut $2.3 million in the cost of the new designs, but that was more than offset by construction cost increases caused by the delay.

“The longer there is any wait to go into construction, the more the cost will go up,” Mike Bollin, project executive for the Pike Co. of Rochester, the project construction manager, said last week.

Helms said he understands the county can’t build a jail until it figures out how to pay for it. But the county can consider more than one thing at a time.

The 26-year-old jail was designed to house 50 inmates, but routinely houses up to 93 with state variances for 13 beds and special permission to house 30 inmates in what used to be indoor recreation space.

The state Commission of Correction pressured the county in October to address the crowding, approving a variance — for three of the 43 extra beds — for just 60 days. state Commission of Correction Chairman Thomas Beilein told the county that future extensions depend on progress toward a solution.

In October, the Needs and Assessment Committee made three recommendations on how the county could fund a new jail:

• Consider a lease-to-own option.

• Withhold a portion of sales tax from the municipalities and setting aside county sales tax revenue, using the income to fund the jail.

• Raise the sales tax a half-percentage point to raise revenue to fund the project. A half-point increase would generate about $3.4 million a year, based on 2016 sales tax revenue.

The recommendations were meant to go to the Budget and Finance Committee for consideration, but the committee has yet to discuss them.