Cortland County Sheriff: New jail facility should have 200-bed capacity

CORTLAND, N.Y. — Cortland County lawmakers appear poised to move forward with plans for a new public safety complex that would replace the county’s overcrowded jail.

On Thursday, members of the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee held a public meeting to get a closer look at site plans and architectural drawings from the two engineering and design firms that were contracted by the county legislature to carry out phase two of the project.

Officials from SMRT Architects and McFarland Johnson, a Binghamton-based architectural firm, presented three separate site plans to the committee Thursday morning, which were generally met with positive feedback from legislators.

The new public safety complex would be constructed on a 73-acre parcel of land on Route 13 in Cortlandville, adjacent to the Tractor Supply Company. The land parcel was donated to the county by DMK Development, LLC, a Michigan-based development company, back in March.

A 73-acre parcel of land on Route 13 in Cortlandville was donated to Cortland County "for the sole purpose of building a new public safety complex" (Google Maps).

A 73-acre parcel of land on Route 13 in Cortlandville was donated to Cortland County "for the sole purpose of building a new public safety complex" (Google Maps).

Sheriff wants larger facility

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said legislators should consider expanding the project from the originally proposed 150-bed jail to a facility that could hold at least 200 inmates.

“I think you seriously need to consider looking at 200 [beds], which I can show you we will need in the future,” Helms told the committee. “Let me work on helping to pay for this so the taxpayers don’t have to."

Helms said he would provide more information at the next committee meeting.

The current jail facility on Greenbush Street was built in 1990 to hold 50 inmates, though the county has received two separate variances from the New York State Department of Corrections to hold an additional 43 inmates at the jail.

An overcrowded facility means the sheriff’s office has to regularly board out inmates to other county jails, which costs the county around $450,000 in 2015, according to previous budget figures from the county.

Helms said adding more beds would allow the county to accept inmates from other counties, introducing an outside source of revenue to offset the cost of a new facility.

“I’m not saying build it bigger so you can make money, but if I know we’re going to need this many cells, then let’s get them,” Helms said.

“As our growth and need expands, we’ll fill into it, rather than having not enough space before the [facility] is finished being paid for,” he added.

Without future expansion, the facility would still be able to hold 163 inmates, architects said.

200+ beds too much?

Legislator Joseph Steinhoff, who chairs the committee, said he was concerned over the size and scope of the project.

“What I see here … is a public safety town,” Steinhoff told the architects. “Now we’re talking about an impound lot and future expansion.”

Steinhoff noted that the committee technically has three options to consider: A new jail, a new jail with a sheriff’s office and a public safety complex. The designs shown to legislators Thursday were similar to other large public safety complexes in New York State.

Still, Steinhoff agreed with Helms that a new jail facility should have the capability to hold up to 200 inmates.

“The jail we thought we needed back in the 90s was woefully undersized,” he noted. “If the sheriff says he thinks he needs 200 [beds], then that’s what we should be looking at.”

In advocating for a larger facility, some committee members alluded to overcrowding problems at the Tompkins County Jail.

It’s unclear how much the public safety complex would cost to build. Previous estimates tagged the project at $38 million, though that proposal was rejected by legislators in an 11-6 vote in April.

That forced legislators to go back to the drawing board, which involved forming a separate committee to look at the specific needs and costs associated with a new jail facility.

The committee will meet again in December.