Sixteen months ago, Genesee County Manager Matt Landers observed that because of bail reform in New York, it was the “worst time in state history to be building a jail … but it must be built.”
Well, since that time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit society extremely hard – resulting in staggering increases in construction costs – while the legislation that eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses remains in place despite calls throughout the state to “reform the reform laws.”
On Monday afternoon, Landers updated county legislators of the municipality’s state-mandated obligation to construct a new jail, expressing the view that it may be difficult to get under the $60 million price tag for a 184-bed jail on property just east of County Building 2 on West Main Street Road.
“We rely on experts that do build jails across the county and rely on trends and speak to the interested parties in the community to better understand how large a jail to build,” he said. “It behooves us to take a step back and make sure we update this study. And although it is less than four years old, a lot has happened in four years.”
Landers said that a revised report from Pike Company, project construction manager, is nearly finished.
“I have been told that we are days out from getting a draft of it, and then we will study it and bring it to the attention of the legislature for review before we finalize a report,” he advised. “At the same time, there was a smaller meeting of consultants (with county management) to try to get a timeline established of what a restart would look like.”
He said if the county is to make “meaningful moves forward, we really need to understand what kind of costs we’re looking at for the jail.”
Previously, legislators supported a budget of $60 million.
Landers said that “estimates had us right around there – maybe a shade over.”
“So, when we put this on pause (due to the pandemic), we were working really hard to shave it to get under that $60 million goal the legislature had put in place,” he said.
Landers said he had approved having SMRT, an architectural firm out of Portland, Me., do a cost estimate of the final design, based on 184 beds, with the understanding that the county might lop off cells in increments of eight if necessary. He said he expects to receive that report, including the amount of cost savings by reducing the number of beds, in two to three weeks.
When that report is finalized, Landers said that Graham Vickers, principal/director of justice practice for SMRT, will appear before the legislature to go over it and answer questions.
“The cost of the jail may drive additional decisions,” he said, adding that questions being asked now focus on whether to wait for construction prices to come down before relaunching the project.
Landers said that Vickers indicated restarting in July and putting it out to bid in the fall.
“That would be the ideal timeframe where we could have our project out there for bidding before companies are already set up for the following year,” he said.
Landers said a major reason for the update is the fluctuation in jail population in the county over the past two years.
He reported that currently the county is responsible for 50 inmates with six of those females being housed outside of the county. By comparison, there were 141 inmates in June 2019. At that time, the thought was that a 184-bed jail was the right size. Now, the thinking is that it could be too big.
Landers said the county’s plan to partner with Orleans County is on hold, but Genesee can’t afford to delay the project.
“What we can do is move forward with the jail and be a viable option at some point in the future if Orleans wanted to partner with us …,” he said.
He said recently the idea of adding a backup 9-1-1 center at the new jail – a 20-foot by 20-foot space that would accommodate two dispatchers – came to light, with the possibility of obtaining a grant to fund it.
In closing, Landers said much depends on what happens to the bail reform laws – whether further legislation is passed to give judges more discretion in remanding those accused of a crime to jail.
“Everything swings back and forth, but with the state legislature controlled by one party, I don’t see it swinging too far back,” he said.
County Sheriff William Sheron, who also was on the Zoom call, said he thinks otherwise.
“I believe the pendulum will come back,” he said. “People are reoffending and reoffending … it’s just a matter of time.”