Cortland County Legislature votes down phase two of jail project

CORTLAND, N.Y. – The Cortland County Legislature voted down a measure Thursday that would have allocated $1.9 million toward the design phase of a proposed countywide public safety complex.

Legislators voted 11-6 Thursday not to move forward with phase two of the project.

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Prior to Thursday’s vote, some legislators said they recognized the need for a new jail but were concerned about the price tag of the proposed public safety complex.

“It’s not a $38 million project, it’s an $80 million project,” legislator Linda Jones said, citing the interest that would be accrued on borrowed funds over time. “We are tying the hands of every taxpayer in this county for the next 30 years if we approve this.”

Legislator John Troy said voting down the project would be making the same mistake as the 1990 Cortland County Legislature, which opted to build a 50-bed jail instead of a 100-bed facility as proposed by the sheriff’s office.

“If we again pick the smaller model, I’m sure the public will praise us for saving money, but I’m also just as sure that the legislature sitting in this room 25 years from now will be ruing the decision as much as we had in 1990,” Troy said.

Aside from the cost, residents have also questioned why the county hasn’t taken more steps to divert drug addicts away from prison and into rehabilitation services and alternatives to incarceration programs.

Francis Uhlir, of Cortland, said the county should move beyond a system of punishment to a system that rehabilitates drug users.

“We’ve had so many people in jail and blocked their way into society when they get out of jail,” Uhlir said. “Isn’t it time we took a different turn?”

Paul Sandy, deputy police chief for the city of Cortland, tried to address this point during Thursday’s meeting, saying many of these programs are already stretched too thin.

Sandy added that “building something beyond our needs right now” would be a “prudent” decision.

“We’re facing a murder trial right now with a few more waiting in the wings,” Sandy told legislators. “Cortland has changed. People have come to this community from the outside and altered our community.”

Local law enforcement officials have been pushing for the project since the county released a 20-page report in August that made the case for why Cortland County needs a new facility.

Sheriff Mark Helms and Undersheriff Bud Rigg have appeared at several public meetings to advocate for a public safety complex, including a public forum held specifically to present more information about the project. Officials say the current jail is overcrowded, which forces the county to board out inmates, a process that costs the county upwards of $500,000 annually.

Rigg has said that New York state has been granting temporary waivers that have allowed the jail to keep its doors open on the condition that the county pursue a new public safety facility.

In August, legislators authorized “Phase One” of the project, which involved identifying a suitable site for a public safety complex. Out of 11 possible sites, a 73-acre property in Cortlandville was chosen–in part because the developer agreed to donate the land parcel if it would be used for a new public safety complex.

The legislature may revisit phase two of the project in 2017.

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