4 takeaways from the annual 'State of Cortland County' address

Donnell Boyden (photo provided)

Donnell Boyden (photo provided)

On Thursday, Cortland County Legislature chair Donnell Boyden delivered the annual ‘State of Cortland County’ address, reflecting on county government’s approach to a number of “longstanding problems” — including an overcrowded and aging jail facility, an expensive landfill operation and deteriorating public infrastructure.

Boyden, a Republican, was appointed legislature chair in April 2015 to replace Susan Briggs after she and fellow lawmaker Charles Sudbrink got involved in a verbal altercation. He represents the county’s 8th legislative district, which includes the towns of Preble and Scott.

Here are four takeaways from Boyden’s address Thursday night:

1 – Overcrowded county jail remains top concern

Despite attempts to advance plans to construct a new jail facility, county legislators in April voted down a proposal to allocate nearly $2 million toward a new public safety complex.

Those who voted against the plan balked at the high price tag of the building, which was expected to cost anywhere between $38 and 80 million (depending on the amount of interest that would be accrued on borrowed funds over time).

Boyden said the “good will and patience” of the New York State Department of Corrections is “wearing thin,” referring to pressure from state officials on local lawmakers to bring the county’s jail up to date with current standards or build an entirely new facility.

An August 2015 study released by the county found that the cost of boarding out jail inmates to other counties due to overcrowding accounts for a roughly $400,000 annual loss in revenue. The building was constructed in 1990 with the intention of housing 50 inmates; today, roughly 90 inmates are housed at the jail, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Prior studies have pointed out the deficiencies in the current facility including overcrowding, antiquated design, and limited space to provide required spaces,” Boyden said Thursday.

2 – Landfill continues to pose more questions than solutions

The county’s landfill operation is another stalemate issue where legislators have repeatedly failed to find consensus.

After narrowly voting down legislation that would have authorized the county to import 4,500 tons of ash from Onondaga County for use as daily over at the landfill, the “ash for trash” plan — a separate piece of legislation that would have allowed the county to import up to 90,000 tons of ash each year — was effectively declared dead by one of its most staunch supporters.

Since then, the county’s solid waste committee has explored other possible alternatives to managing the landfill, though importing ash continues to remain an option on the table, according to committee chair Charles Sudbrink. Members of the county’s solid waste committee recently toured the Madison County landfill facility, which imports ash from Onondaga County’s solid waste operation.

In his address, Boyden said the landfill can still generate revenue for the county, despite repeated claims by ash for trash critics that the landfill will always be a money-losing operation.

3 – Airport seen as attractant for business

Boyden said planning is underway to maximize the use of the Cortland County Airport. He referred to “short-term investments” in the airport that would position the county to be more attractive to companies looking to expand their operations in the Cortland area.

Last August, the county was awarded $250,000 in federal grant funding towards improvements at the airport. The county used some of the funding to hire Binghamton-based planning and engineering firm McFarland Johnson to come up with a new master plan for the airport.

Their report was released in May.

4 – Boyden stands by decision not to hire county administrator

The position of county administrator in Cortland County has remained vacant since the end of 2014. In the absence of an administrator, the county legislature chair has taken over the administrative duties that would normally be handled by an administrator. Last year, the county created the position of Budget Officer and hired Peggy Mousaw to oversee county finances, a duty also normally reserved for the county administrator.

Local lawmakers have been debating whether to get rid of the county administrator position altogether, though it’s unclear if such a move would receive public support. The Cortland County League of Women voters held a well-attended forum last month where it posed the question: could local taxpayers benefit from having a county administrator?

In his Thursday address, Boyden dismissed claims that the county could not adequately function without a county administrator:

This Legislature continues to receive criticism for not filling the vacant County Administrator position, I’m pleased to report that despite the lack of a full time administrator this Legislature has been able stay within the State mandated property tax cap and has continued to maintain all current levels of service while increasing the County fund balance to nearly $15 million dollars. I attribute this success to a committed Legislature, hardworking Department heads and a thorough budget office.

A county administrator is charged with “managerial responsibilities relating to the day-to-day operations of county government and all of its departments,” as well as overseeing and coordinating the implementation of the annual county budget. according to the county’s website.

The position is currently vacant but is being filled by Boyden, a part-time legislator.