Protesters voice support for jail alternatives at meeting of Cortland County legislators

Several members of the public hold signs that read, “NO more jails, not in Cortland, not in Broome, not in Tompkins counties,” at a meeting of the Cortland County Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee (Sara S./Cortland Voice)

Cortland County’s Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee came to a stalemate Thursday morning after discussion on proposed design schematics for phase two of a new public safety complex came to a bilateral split.

In February, the Cortland County Legislature approved the donation of a 73-acre parcel of land to Cortland County gifted from Michigan-based developer, DMK Development, LLC. The land, located along Route 13 in Cortlandville adjoining the Tractor Supply store, would put the new public safety facility four miles away from the currently facility on Greenbush Street in the city of Cortland.

Cortland County’s current jail facility, built in 1990, has a 50-bed capacity, and with cyclical overcrowding, the sheriff’s office has to regularly board out inmates to other jails, costing the county around $450,000 in 2015. Although the county has received variances from New York State to hold additional inmates, the overcrowded facility continues to be a financial burden.

David Lay, senior architect at SMRT Architects and Engineers, PC, and Mark Bollin, construction project manager at The Pike Company, presented the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment Committee with conceptual designs for the new public safety building. The conceptual designs for the new facility will be “exactly what you need and nothing more,” Lay said. Lay and Bollin argue that the Route 13 location is ideal due to the proximity of utilities, its good topography, soil, and the site history.

Bollin asserted that the sharp rise in contractual inflation—which he says is vastly different from general economic inflation—is due in large part to natural disasters, e.g., hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose, and a shortage of skilled labor. Bollin says inflation is roughly $28,000 a week.

The Cortland County Jail in August 2015 (Cortland Voice file photo)

What’s the cost?

The current estimate for the proposed 117,400 square foot, 148-bed public safety complex would cost Cortland County around $58 million, up five percent from an estimated $55 million in February. Lay anticipates an added three percent to the cost in inflation by the time the facility would be built, if approved, in 2018, raising the cost to an estimated $60.28 million.

Lay also outlined potential cost-savings if certain features were removed from the new facility: removal of an entire housing pod would have an estimated cost-savings of $8.22 million; removal of a 911/Emergency Dispatch would have an estimated cost-savings of $1.3 million; removal of storage would have an estimated cost-savings of $.7 million; removal of an expanded Sheriff’s office—meaning patrol, detectives, evidence, etc.—would have an estimated cost-savings of $2.67 million. Although New York State law mandates having a sheriff’s office within the jailing complex, patrol, evidence, and detective subdivisions are not mandated.

Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms implored the committee that he’d like the county to get the biggest jail they could, saying 148 beds would still put them at full capacity, and that there’d still be a need to house inmates out.

Alternatives to incarceration

George Wagner, vice chair of the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment committee, then opened the floor to questions. Several members of the public, many of them holding pieces of copy paper with the words. “NO more jails, not in Cortland, not in Broome, not in Tompkins counties,” spoke out against the construction of a new facility, questioning why alternative methods to incarceration aren’t being considered instead of building a new facility.

Some of the alternatives proffered were expanding family court and drug court, with the possible addition of a “meth” court; and providing individuals with mental health and/or substance abuse disorders with appropriate care and supervision, rather than jail time.

Members of the public questioned why individuals charged with a crime aren’t sentenced and processed quicker, premising the longer these individuals are forced to stay in jail, the higher the cost taxpayers face to house them. Another attendee questioned why local officials and judges are absent from this process and aren’t attending meetings to stay informed with their constituents’ concerns.

Members of SUNY Binghamton’s academic community studying decarceration in rural counties in New York State also attended Thursday’s meeting as concerned citizens, articulating results of their research.

“The reason why jail populations go up is because we’re housing more and more people that are not sentenced and not convicted of crime,” said Andrew Pragacz, a sociology graduate student at SUNY Binghamton. “That’s what the barebones data tells us.”

Pragacz also said drug misdemeanors comprise a large portion of those figures. Cortland County is currently facing a burgeoning heroin and opioid public health crisis.

After hearing commentary from several concerned citizens, the Public Safety Facility Needs and Assessment committee posited the creation of a separate committee to cover the scope of stakeholder concerns, though no direct action was taken