The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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July 16, 2014

Going public on privatization

Consider security, hidden costs, prison board told

MERCER COUNTY — Calling on prison board officials to consider the full effects of hiring an outside firm to run all or part of the Mercer County Jail, two people addressed the board Tuesday morning.

Moved to a different and much larger than normal conference room inside the jail along state Route 258 in Findley Township, officials were expecting some public comment after recent announcements that county commissioners intend to seek proposals from for-profit organizations interested in running the 250-bed jail.

The move came shortly after the unionized jail guards, unable to reach a contract settlement with county officials in the last 30 months, filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for an alleged labor-law violation involving a former work practice that called for guards to be present for roll call before their shift officially began. That practice is no longer in place.

The county and the union are now in the process of working out an agreement through binding arbitration.

One private company toured the jail last month, though no specific financial details were discussed.

County Commissioner Chairman John Lechner has explained at several commissioners meetings that he believes the move toward privatization is a financial need and is “in no way” tied to either contract negotiations or the lawsuit.

According to Lechner, the $7 million annual jail budget eats up about a quarter of all tax monies paid by residents. By adding in state and federal dollars the county gets to operate the prison, it still takes nearly 12 percent of the county’s total $56 million operating budget.

Opponents to the privatization issue have primarily been the guards, who likely would be facing a 50-percent pay cut, looking at their wages being hacked from a top end of $24 an hour to $12 an hour under a private contractor.

Commissioners have suggested that as the county’s economic interests grow the job sector will change along with that and many will likely switch careers, perhaps into something related to the oil and gas industry.

The quality of work at the jail has never been an issue, said Prison Warden Irna Craig. The jail scored a 100 percent on a recent survey by the state Department of Corrections, which “keeps our record going,” she said.

“And that thanks goes to the staff and board who keep things running smoothly,” she said.

Craig reported no “extraordinary” events in the last month and also reported overtime costs have gone down and are expected to decrease even further, as the county hired nine part-time guards last week.

After six weeks of orientation they will be able to fill in for full-time guards. Under the 2012 contract, part-time workers can work up to 18 percent of the hours worked by a full-time employee.

None of the vacant positions were due to the issues between county officials and corrections officers, said Ross Livermore, union steward.

Livermore addressed the seven-member board, which was missing President Judge Thomas R. Dobson, District Attorney Bob Kochems and county Commissioner Brian Beader.

“I think the county has more than a fiduciary responsibility to its residents. It has the obligation to avoid the failures of others who have gone the way of privatization. The sole reason that we have the high standards that we do is because of the people at our facility,” Livermore said.

“The safety and security of the public depend on it,” he added.

Hermitage resident Sue Snyder also spoke to the board, calling cost-savings by private contractors a “myth” and urged the board to investigate all the hidden costs and obligations it could face.

“You’re looking at opening the doors to some unscrupulous behavior,” she said.

No member of the prison board made any comment during the meeting.

Asked afterwards, Mercer County Sheriff Gary Hartman said he is opposed to the idea of privatization.

“We had one company come in for about 15 minutes and make their presentation. Nobody has had time to digest this. There haven’t been any requests for proposals sent out. Privatization has been an ongoing topic for the last 10 years. I know of at least three times it’s been discussed. There have been no serious moves made. I think at this point, the purpose is to explore some cost-savings,” he said.

“These guys do a good job. We’ve had very few serious incidents. The training has increased four-fold. We’ve saved the county money. My hope is the union and the county can settle the contract in the very near future,” Hartman said. “It’s a lot of pressure and stress on the guards,” he said.

 

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