March 23, 2016

Jail design plan goes to Legislature

Associate Editor

A plan to spend $1.9 million to design a new jail will go to the Cortland County Legislature this month, but votes Tuesday suggest some legislators feel rushed, even though managers predict the jail can be built without raising taxes.
The Budget and Finance Committee voted, 5-1, with Legislators Joseph Steinhoff and John Troy absent, to send a plan to design the 150-bed facility to the full legislature. Legislator Sandy Price (D-Virgil, Harford) voted no.
However, resolutions to allow the county to borrow the $1.9 million to reimburse the general fund for the expense both failed on a 4-2 vote. Legislator Linda Jones (R-Homer) joined Price in voting no. The absences of Steinhoff (R-Cortlandville) and Troy (D-Cortland) count as no votes. The measures, which would hire SMRT Architects of Latham, will still go to the floor because the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee already approved them.
“I feel rushed,” Price said before the votes, and while they were not members of the committee, Legislators James Denkenberger (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton), Amy Cobb (D-Cortland) and Raylynn Knolls (D-Cortland) had questions, too.
“A need for a jail is not new news, but we need details,” Price said.
“Where’s the money coming from?” Denkenberger asked. Can the county get grants to defray the cost? And is state or federal aid available? “I want to see figures on paper.”
Some of those questions can’t be answered until the design phase is complete — in May 2017, if the county approves the measure on March 31. However, the county can’t afford to wait too long, Sheriff Mark Helms said. The county is already operating under temporary approval to house up to 30 inmates in a gymnasium-turned-dormitory and that permission that could be taken away at any time.
The County Jail opened in 1990 with 50 beds. By 1997, every last space was converted to increase capacity to 74. Yet even with a temporary capacity of about 93, the county still spends $400,000 to $500,000 a year to send inmates to other jails. It had 95 inmates Tuesday.
DMK Development of Michigan donated 73 acres onRoute 13 in Cortlandville in February for the facility. That property was assessed at about $132,000, and county officials figure the donation saved$2 million in site acquisition and survey costs.
The county does not own either of two other candidate sites — in a residential neighborhood about a half-mile away in Virgil and another near Saunders Concrete on Locust Avenue in Cortland, said Legislator Kevin Whitney (R-Cortlandville), chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee.
“Sell me on where the money is coming from when we’re already taxed up the wazoo,” Denkenberger said.
The money will come from savings that county Budget and Finance Director Peggy Mousaw has promised. She estimates that bonding on a $38.5 million facility would cost about $2.7 million a year. However, the county would save an easy $500,000 in overtime and costs to send inmates elsewhere, reducing the need to $2.2 million or so each year.
Mousaw also said she’s identified $1.5 million routinely overbudgeted for the Department of Social Services and another $600,000 for the Health Department. That’s almost a break-even point.
The $38.5 million estimate is probably too high, Whitney and Mousaw added. It included$2 million for acquiring the site, which it got by donation. With other savings, Mousaw expects a final cost around $35 million or less.
Jones didn’t oppose building a public safety complex, just borrowing $1.9 million to design it. “I know we have fund balance to pay for this,” she said. And had the county — which has debated building a new jail and sheriff’s office for more than a decade — planned ahead, it could have set aside much of the construction cost to avoid borrowing even more.
“Why aren’t we pulling in our belts to help pay for this?” Jones asked. “Money should have been put away for years.”
The resolution to borrow the money would require a two-thirds vote of the fullLegislature.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” Undersheriff Budd Rigg told legislators, but answering them is what the design phase is for. “We want those answers, too.”

To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe