October 23, 2021

Survey on jail may seek public comment

Plan addresses overcrowding issue

Cortland Standard file photo

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

Cortland County legislators will review a proposed survey on the county jail that, if approved, would seek residents’ input on how the Legislature should address jail overcrowding.

A draft of the survey was presented Tuesday to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. But to give the full Legislature, and department heads associated with the jail, time to make recommendations on the survey, the committee won’t decide what to do with it until next month.

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms said he opposes the questions listed in the proposed survey. He said he would like to see them reworded to be more fair and impartial.

Of the five proposed questions, three are “yes or no” questions and two allow written answers. The first one asks: “Should Cortland County operate and maintain a county jail adequate in size and capacity to house the current and projected average daily jail population?” After recommendations are received, the questions could change, said Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Michael Barylski (D-Cortlandville).

“This was my idea in terms of how we might start to engage in the public (on the jail issue),” Barylski said.

He put the draft of the survey together with the county attorney and county’s environmental attorney.

The 26-year-old county jail has 57 beds, but routinely houses 90 or more inmates, with a special permit for a 30-bed dormitory and a three-bed state variance. However, as of this morning there are 74 inmates in the county jail, and none boarded out.

The Legislature’s decision on whether to build a new jail for more than $50 million, or renovate the current jail — which could cost as much as building a new jail — has been on hold while it waits for two jail studies to be complete.

CRS Inc. of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is doing a needs assessment on the county jail, determining how many beds the county needs. And the Vera Institute of Justice is working with the county for free, looking for ways the county can reduce its jail population.

One of the proposed questions in the draft of the survey asks residents what questions they would like the Legislature to ask the two organizations.

Legislator Kelly Preston (RHomer) said the survey — which has a summary page of what has been going on with the jail — does not state how much a new jail would cost. She said it would be important information to include.

Legislator George Wagner (RMarathon, Lapeer) suggested the survey should be sent to town supervisors to review, too.

“It’s their tax money we’re talking about,” he said.

How the survey will be distributed once completed is yet to be determined. Barylski suggested the idea of using the online survey website Survey Monkey.

Preston said doing it online would only target a residents with online capabilities, which all don’t have.

“Whatever we decide to come up with for a survey, or if we decide to come up with a survey, we need to send it out to all the taxpayers in the county in order for this to be a legitimate survey,” said Legislator Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton).