Co-chairs of a committee charged with navigating the road toward a new county jail underscored the validity of a joint architect/consultant study on Wednesday afternoon as they asked Genesee County legislators to consider a 200-bed facility to replace the current County Jail at 14 W. Main St.
“This is coming from the experts,” said County Sheriff William Sheron, who is heading the 12-member steering committee along with County Assistant Manager Matthew Landers.
Sheron, speaking at a Committee of the Whole meeting at the Old Courthouse, was referring to a study conducted by SMRT, the architect under contract with the county, and CRS Inc., a consulting firm noted for its work in jail planning and analysis.
Landers reported that the committee is unanimous in recommending a 200-bed jail in light of the study, which initially found that the county would need a 184-bed facility by 2042, but then changed its estimate to 214 beds after reviewing 18 months of new data. New York State has mandated Genesee County to erect a new jail.
“We felt 214 was too extreme,” Landers said. “We believe a 200-bed facility (with five separate areas or pods) would give us flexibility.”
Landers noted that about 30 of the cells could be sized appropriately to double-bunk (100 square feet compared to 80 square feet) as a relatively short-term solution (as the population swells).
Jail Superintendent William Zipfel, however, said he was against double-bunking.
"It really doesn't work," he said, "and to build a jail for double-bunking would be ludicrous.”
Zipfel agreed that flexibility was important due to the several “classifications” of inmates. He said the jail needs to be flexible as prisoners with special needs (medical, emotional, substance abuse, pregnancy, childbirth, etc.) would have to be segregated at times and given “recreational” space.
The current jail is operating at 95 to 99 percent capacity, Zipfel said, and has created a “lot of strain” on his employees.
Legislator Gary Maha, the longtime former county sheriff, urged legislators to look at recent history when making their decision on the new jail’s size.
“We don’t want to build it too small. That happened to us in the ‘80s,” he said, referring to the County Courts Facility across the road from the Old Courthouse.
As a matter of perspective, Zipfel said that the current county jail houses around 90 prisoners on average and “boards out” to other counties at least 30 more.
“If we moved into a new 184-bed jail today, we’d be at 80 percent capacity (the state’s recommended level),” he said.
When Legislator Andrew Young asked “how do we get from 120 to 200,” Zipfel answered, “As soon as it opens, the female (jail) population in this county will double.”
Zipfel said he values the opinion of the “professionals” who did the needs assessment, and agrees with (at least) the 200-bed figure.
“The Court Facility is too small now and it came back to haunt us,” he said. “We’ve done this before. It would be a shame to do it again.”
Legislator Robert Bausch said 200 beds may be the right size, considering “we’re at about 125 now at the lower end and if 160 is the top end – 80 percent capacity – I could see that the middle ground is going to fill up very quickly.”
Bausch mentioned, at least twice, that each cell costs $250,000.
Sheron and Landers’ agenda also included the possibility of including an “arraignment room” in the facility, moving Genesee Justice to the new jail and the requirement to hire four to five new correction officers as the “jail transition team.”
“If we pushed through an arraignment room, it would save considerably on transportation costs,” Sheron said, adding that he would like to see Genesee Justice there as well because “they’re the ones keeping them (potential prisoners) out of jail.”
The current plan also includes a 2,000-square-foot medical area, said County Manager Jay Gsell.
Landers said the county needs to start budgeting for four or five new correction officers – additional employees mandated by the NYS Commission of Corrections -- to serve as a team dedicated to transitioning from the old jail to the new one.
Sheron added that both jails – he termed the current jail as “antiquated” -- would be in operation for about six months after the opening of the new one.
Following the transition, these officers would be retained and join the sheriff’s office full-time staff.
Landers said the project has moved from the “programming phase into the schematic design phase” following the hiring of SMRT and the Pike Company as construction manager. He said the county has a verbal informal agreement with the owner of adjacent land on West Main Street Road for an additional 2.81 acres, if needed.
While nothing is official at this time, a jail of that size would cost around $50 million, and would be funded by sales tax revenue (the county has restructured its sales tax distribution system with its municipalities) and through a reserve fund, Landers said.
County leaders are looking at county-owned land near County Building 2 on West Main Street Road as a potential site. Sheron said he would hope to see a shovel in the ground by next summer – “if everything keeps moving along." Then it would take about two years to complete the jail.
Other members of the committee are Legislator Shelley Stein, Undersheriff Brad Mazur, Assistant County Engineer Laura Wadhams, IT Director Stephen Zimmer, Planning Director Felipe Oltramari and Deputy Treasurer Kevin Andrews.