5 takeaways from Monday's forum on a proposed public safety complex in Cortland County

CORTLAND, N.Y. — A public information session was held Monday evening at the Cortland County Office Building to inform local residents about a proposed public safety complex that would replace what officials say is an outdated and overcrowded jail facility.

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On Monday, Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms, Undersheriff Bud Rigg and Peggy Mousaw, the county’s director of budget and finance, made the case for why the county desperately needs a new correctional facility.

Last week, the budget and finance committee of the Cortland County Legislature passed several measures to enter into phase 2 of the project, which involves borrowing $1.9 million in bonding, coming up with a design for the facility and beginning the environmental review process. The measure is expected to be voted on by the full legislature on Thursday, which will meet at 6 p.m. at the county office building at 60 Central Ave.

Here are five takeaways from Monday’s presentation.

1 — Cortland County’s jail is unique—and not in a good way

The county’s current jail, located at 54 Greenbush St, was built in 1990 with the ability to house between 50 and 60 inmates. At the time, the sheriff’s department wanted a facility that could house 100 inmates.

The building was constructed with a “remote podular design,” which law enforcement officials have said has made it difficult to house inmates that are female, juveniles or have special needs. Many of those inmates end up being boarded out to other facilities.

Helms said Monday that the department has "outgrown" its current facility.

“The design is so inefficient…I’ve been told the [New York State] Commissioner of Corrections has come here to show people what not to do,” Helms said during Monday’s forum.

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms lays out plans for a new public safety complex at the county office building Monday evening (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice).

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms lays out plans for a new public safety complex at the county office building Monday evening (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice).

Helms said the new facility would have a design that would allow the sheriff’s department to monitor more inmates with less officers.

2 – The jail is overcrowded

In making its case for a new facility, the sheriff’s department has cited the high cost of boarding out jail inmates to other facilities. In 2014, the county spent more than $456,000 boarding out inmates.

That same year, the county completed a $70,000 expansion project to convert the gymnasium at the facility into a dormitory to house an additional 34 inmates.

The project was permitted by the state on the condition that the county would pursue a new public safety complex.

“The state has basically allowed us to house people in that gym in the dorm setting, knowing that we’re working towards a solution to our overcrowding problem,” Helms said.

3 – Cortland will be stuck with a jail no matter what

County officials have explored alternatives to building a new jail—including the creation of a regional correctional facility incorporating multiple counties—though this would require legislative action at the state level. Under New York State law, every county is required to have its own jail.

“They close prisons. I have to have a jail,” Helms said.

Helms and Rigg said if the county elects to do nothing, the county will continue to absorb the cost of boarding out inmates.

4 – The public has mixed feelings about the project

Several attendees at Monday’s forum expressed concerns over the high price tag of the project, which is estimated to cost $38 million.

Mousaw, the county’s director of budget and finance, said the project would largely be paid for through the issuance of bonds. The county would also seek any grant funding available from the state.

Mousaw suggested that the county could get a good deal on the project due to high demand in the construction market.

“The contractors are starving,” Mousaw said. “Every bid that I’ve seen run through a municipality has come in less than the estimate from the architect because people in this area are hungry for work.”

Mousaw added that the county will not know the true cost of building the facility until May 2017.

5 – There may be a better solution

Even those who oppose building a $38 million public safety complex agree that the county’s jail is overcrowded—but building a new, expensive facility may not be the only way to fix the problem.

Patrick Perfetti, a criminal defense attorney based in Cortland, criticized the sheriff’s department for taking a “single disciplinary approach” to try and reduce the county’s jail inmate population.

“It seems to me that what is being presented to us is the absolutely, most expensive option, and it’s coming only from the sheriff’s department,” Perfetti told Sheriff Helms. “Where are the judges? Where is the department of probation?

“You’re coming in here and saying, ‘Build me a Cadillac,’ but perhaps a Sonata will get you to where you have to be.”

Perfetti said the bigger issue is not the facility itself, but the county’s jail population, which has increased over the years while the county’s overall population has remained flat for decades.

“If bail is $500 and my client doesn’t have that, and he’s a working man, he’s got a family and he doesn’t have the money, he’ll be sitting in jail,” Perfetti said.

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