Budget plan calls for $30.99M to fund system next year

Last updated: December 01. 2013 11:47PM - 3677 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

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A pregnant inmate in Luzerne County’s prison system kept claiming she was in labor, and prison officials suspected she was faking it.

“She’s been warned about it, but she likes to go to the hospital,” county Correctional Services Division Head J. Allen Nesbitt recently told County Council during his 2014 budget presentation.

Unwilling to take chances, prison officials immediately whisked her to the hospital, only to learn she was not nearing delivery, he said. The prison can bill inmates for medical care if it’s determined they “abuse the system,” he said.

“The hospital told us this is the third time that she’s fooled around with it. We have now charged her restitution for that trip of $635,” he said. “We will try to get that from her.”

The situation was among several examples Nesbitt provided to show he’s exhausting all available opportunities to bring in new revenue and cut costs in the prison system, which is the largest single department expense in the county’s proposed $127.1 million 2014 general fund operating budget.

The proposed budget calls for $30.99 million to fund the prison system next year. While some county departments bring in fees and outside government funding to offset expenses, the prison system is expected to generate only $522,732 in revenue next year.

The county budgeted $29.5 million in prison expenses this year.

“The division of corrections historically has been the big elephant in the room when it comes to budget time,” Nesbitt said.

On the revenue side, Nesbitt told council he charges inmates when possible, including a $100 processing fee when they enter the prison system.

If inmates ask to see the doctor and have no medical problem, a $5 fee is charged, he said. Inmates also pay $5 if they must go to a hearing officer for violating prison rules or if they lose their identification or their prison handbook, he said.

Nesbitt told council he could further reduce staff and save on building upkeep by replacing the aging, five-story prison with a modern facility, but that option is not on the table at this time because prior administrations maxed out borrowing. The county’s debt repayments are estimated at $27 million next year.

“The answer is a new facility, but I know we’re not going to see that for a long time,” Nesbitt said.

County officials have exempted the correctional system from potential budget-related layoffs, saying the prison is down to minimum staffing levels needed to ensure public safety.

Nesbitt said he is still trying to streamline staff. The canine program will be eliminated, and the remaining dog handler on the workforce will transfer to a corrections officer position vacated by a retiring employee, which will save $99,000, he said.

The day reporting center director resigned in September, and her duties are now handled by existing employees, he said.

Nesbitt said he is proposing the creation of an employee to handle the classification of inmates because that service costs $25,000 more when handled by an outside contractor. Inmate classification involves assessments to determine which section of the prison system offenders should be lodged.

A lieutenant has been overseeing prison food ordering since the kitchen supervisor was furloughed in the last round of layoffs, and increased competition has resulted in reduced prices, Nesbitt said.

He’s budgeting $871,533 for food next year, compared to $950,000 in 2013. The prison spent $1.02 million on food in 2012 and $939,400 in 2011, records show.

Overtime is increasing from $400,000 in this year’s budget to $650,000 next year primarily because additional staffers must be called in to transport inmates to the hospital, with as many as four runs some days, he told council.

Nesbitt said the prison is staffed “bare bones” and has no cushion to handle transport on each shift.

Personal days also cause a problem because as many as a dozen unionized guards may take off the same day, but Nesbitt said he is working on a solution with the union.

The union agreement, which covers roughly 280 of the 302 prison employees, expires the end of this year. The current contract provides six personal days, 12 holidays and 18 sick days in addition to vacation leave. The union has the right to binding arbitration if negotiations reach an impasse.

The prison also has realized savings with energy efficient bulbs for exterior and interior lighting and motion detectors that dim lighting in offices, hallways and fire stairways when these areas are not in use.

“We lost our maintenance supervisor in layoffs last year, and one of the union workers has stepped up to come up with this program,” Nesbitt said.

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