October 23, 2021

County jail plan delay continues

Cortland Standard file photo

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

In the Cortland County Legislature’s final act on its jail project for the year, it voted down a proposed resolution to move forward with the design process of an almost $50 million jail.

With the project once again delayed, it will now be up to the nine returning and eight new legislators to determine how to address the current jail’s overcrowding.

The resolution failed 2-14. Legislators Richard Bushnell (D-Cortland) and Gordon Wheelock (R-Homer) were the only two to vote
in favor of moving ahead with Phase II of the project — completing design work, finishing statemandated environmental studies and getting the project ready to go out for bid. Legislator Raylynn Knolls (D-Cortland) was absent.

The project is now stalled. The Legislature next year can either bring up the resolution again or move in another direction.

Expected outcome

“It played out like I thought,” Bushnell said, acknowledging he knew many legislators opposed moving forward with the resolution to design a 96,650-squarefoot, $49.8 million facility with 148 beds, sheriff and administration offices and the 911 center.

That would’ve meant paying the rest of the $1.9 million allocated for the phase — about $1.4 million — to Latham architects SMRT.

Bushnell, who did not seek reelection, brought up the resolution at the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, earlier this month. It was endorsed there, a week after it failed at the Public Safety Needs and Assessment Committee — tasked with making a recommendation for the jail project.

Returning Legislator George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer) said he would like to see the Legislature “forget about the whole thing,” resulting in applause from the audience of more than 50 people. “We don’t have the money,” he said.

Legislator Jim Denkenberger (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton), also set to step down from the Legislature, said he does not think the Legislature has gone about the process of addressing the current jail’s crowding properly. He criticized the Legislature for not determining how the county is going to get the money.

The 26-year-old jail was designed to house 50 inmates, but routinely houses 90 or more with state variances for 13 beds and special permission to house 30 inmates in what used to be indoor recreation space.

Public opposition

Thirteen people spoke on the resolution to move forward with Phase II — all 13 were against it. Some cited other options to addressing the overcrowding, such as alternatives to incarceration. Most cited the cost.

Homer resident Kevin Walsh went as far to say he believes if the county approves building a new jail, the increase in taxes it would cause will drive people out of the county. “A lot of people in the county can’t take it anymore,” Walsh said.

Two incoming legislators, Ann Homer (R-Cortland) and Kelly Preston (R-Homer), took part in the privilege of the floor to express their displeasure with the possibility of the Legislature approving the resolution to move forward with Phase II. Preston stated the jail decision should be left with the new Legislature.

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms, like Bushnell, was not surprised the resolution failed. His hope now is he can get together with the new group of legislators next year and see what they can come up with.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we can do,” Helms said.


Before Legislator John Troy (DCortland) voted against the resolution, he said he wanted to see Phase II move ahead. Two of his reasons to go ahead with the project were rising construction costs and the possibility of the county losing state permission to house more inmates than its designed capacity.

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

The cost of five options offered by the consultant have increased in the past year. The $49.8 million jail design the Legislature consider started at $47.3 million.

Bollin said when estimates were provided in February, history showed cost escalation — the change in cost or price of specific goods and services — was at 3 percent. Since July, escalation has doubled to 6 percent.

Also, the state Commission of Correction pressured the county in October to address the crowding issue, 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.

Before the vote, Denkenberger had made a motion to cease work with SMRT. However, County Attorney Karen Howe said that would dissolve the contract with the firm and the process would need to start from the beginning if the county ever wanted to continue with a new jail design.

By voting down the resolution, the county keeps its contract, simply delaying the work.

Denkenberger pulled his resolution shortly after the explanation. Fellow legislators let him know they did not want to cancel the contract.