The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 26, 2014

Lechner: Money behind jail idea

Guards’ lawsuit unrelated, he says

MERCER COUNTY — A decision to consider having a private company run operations at the Mercer County Jail has “absolutely” nothing to do with a recent lawsuit filed against the county by guards seeking backdated overtime payments for an alleged labor law violation, but rather is an obligation of elected officials to “be the best stewards” of taxpayer dollars, according to Commissioner Chairman John Lechner.

Union representatives say commissioners are stalling in hammering out a contract and playing games with timelines, leaving the threat of privatization hanging over their heads.

If a private company is brought in, workers who stay will face salary cuts of nearly 50 percent, said Sgt. Doyle Whenry, one of two union stewards for Teamsters Local 250.

“I’m not putting anyone down, but who is going to work for $10 an hour? Who can take a salary cut like that?” Whenry said.

“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to persuade people that privatization is not a good idea and it won’t save the money they think it’s going to,” he added.

Of the contract negotiations, he said, “I don’t know what more we can give up, literally. We’ve come up with proposals worked out between the attorneys and when it goes back to the commissioners, we don’t get a response.”

He said the union has asked for a minimal wage increase, agreed to increases in the cost of health insurance and to drop any current grievances that have been filed, excluding the overtime lawsuit.

Currently, the union has begun the process of binding arbitration, he added.

Lechner said the board is still negotiating and hopes they can reach an agreement. Talks were under way as recent as a week ago, he said. The current contact expired in 2012.

Talk of having an outside firm take over jail operations began publicly last week, though Lechner said county officials and prison board members have been discussing the idea for a while.

The cost of providing service of the “quality” that is at the jail may be something that is just too expensive for county coffers, Lechner said. The jail costs the county about $7.5 million a year.

He said there are an incredible number of factors to consider before moving ahead with a private contractor, including the cost-to-benefit ratio.

“We don’t have hard numbers right now. We’re putting out proposals for that kind of information and we’ll have to wait and see what comes back. And then it will have to be evaluated by the prison board. The president judge, the district attorney, the sheriff, the commissioners, the controller, they’ll all offer a perspective to whether this is a good idea or not,” Lechner said.

“It will be a judgment call. We’ll take the information and go with our best educated opinion. We’ll see if the current cost structure is worth it,” he added.

A private company could take over all or part of the operations, he said. He also said any contract would likely have an “out clause” so if it turns out not to work as well as hoped, the county could again take it over. “But I think the key to ensuring maximum quality of service is close oversight,” he added.

Commissioner Matt McConnell said it would be “disappointing” if the county is forced into privatization. “But the costs have to be weighed with what we can afford.”

Both commissioners stressed that the privatization talks predated any union negotiations.

“The lawsuit that was filed has absolutely no part in the contract negotiations. It can’t be a part of it,” Lechner said.

“This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. We’re going to do an analysis and make our decision,” he said. He said he hoped to have a lot more information in the next three to six months.

If a private company is brought in and is willing to hire current prison employees, any wage discussion is between them, he said.

He said he was not going to approach the union and discuss terms of a privatization. He said he didn’t know if current employees would take a job at half the salary. “I don’t know what kind of options people have in life, what different path they might take.”

 

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