The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

June 27, 2014

Jail guards question county officials

MERCER COUNTY — Her voice cracking with emotion, an employee of the Mercer County Jail on Thursday questioned county officials about their plans to privatize all or part of the jail operations.

A private company would likely pay salaries in the $10- to $12-an-hour range, about half the salary most guards are earning.

“What about the people who worked hard to get where they are? I gave up my nursing license for this job. I’m the sole breadwinner for my family. Why are you taking that from my family?” she asked commissioners John Lechner, Matt McConnell and Brian Beader at their twice-monthly meeting.

“We’re not a bunch of numbers. We’re people. And we’re here because we want you to see that. And anytime, we’re still willing to sit down and try and reach an agreement and put an end to this matter,” said Sgt. Doyle Whenry, one of two union stewards for Teamsters Local 250.

The woman and Whenry were part of a group of about 20 jail employees who peppered the board with questions about contract negotiations and the plans to privatize jail operations. The crowd took nearly all the seats in the otherwise normally empty assembly room in the basement of the courthouse.

Beader and McConnell said nothing during any of the questions, leaving Lechner to answer.

“We’re not closing the prison,” he said, “those jobs aren’t going away. But I understand your frustration.”

He insists any talk of privatization is because the jail in Findley Township is the biggest expense the county has and he says he believes there are savings to be had in letting someone else take over.

However, when it comes to jobs, he said business is booming in Mercer County.

“I think we’ll see a shift in career fields. We’ve seen growth in other industries. CCL Container expanded. Joy Cone just announced an expansion. Sharon Metal Fencing just about doubled in size. I see a lot of jobs for truck drivers in the paper, and jobs that support the oil and gas industry,” he said.

Union officials said they are frustrated with attempts to settle a contract, especially since the last one expired in 2012.

“I literally don’t know what else we can give,” Whenry said earlier.

Lechner said he didn’t want to handle the negotiations at the public meeting and made little comment relating to specific contract details, other than to say the guards had asked for a higher pay raise than was given to any other county employee, including those from other bargaining units.

“Any further discussion on this needs to take place in negotiations. We’ll see what can be hammered out,” he said.

Asked his stance on the privatization, Beader refused to comment.

The county will seek proposals from private companies in the next month, seeking “hard facts and numbers” about what it would cost.

One private, for-profit company, Community Education Centers, based in New Jersey with operations in 17 states, already toured the jail.

A final decision will come from the seven-member committee that makes up the prison board.

Meetings of that board are open to the public. The next meeting is at 9 a.m. July 15 at the county jail.

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