Friday, July 11, 2014

Council’s choices on prison confining


June 17. 2013 11:45PM

By - - (570) 991-6388


County Council will hold a public budget work session at 7 tonight in the council meeting room at the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.

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Luzerne County government’s second-highest expense — the prison system — will be dissected at county council’s first monthly budget work session tonight.

Council members must adopt budgets under home rule and recently decided to start holding monthly financial discussions to get a better handle on county government’s $260.1 million annual operation, which includes county agencies primarily or entirely subsidized by the state and federal government.

This year’s $29.5 million prison budget is exceeded only by Children and Youth’s $42.4 million allocation.

In preparation for the session, county Manager Robert Lawton publicly released a report packed with statistics, including figures that show spending on staffing has continued to grow while the number of inmates is declining.

Prison costs

Despite correctional officer furloughs last year, spending on staffing is rising.

About 79 percent of the budget — $23.4 million — goes to wages and benefits for roughly 300 employees.

In comparison, staffing costs were $22.8 million in 2011 and 2012.

The nearly half-a-million-dollar increase this year was attributed to mandatory raises for union workers. The union contract expires the end of this year, and the collective bargaining unit has the right to binding arbitration.

Unless minimum manning requirements are relaxed in the next union agreement, county officials have said they cannot impose further staff cuts.

The need to meet union-required staffing levels on each shift and honor vacation and sick-time allotments again has caused the prison to spend more than budgeted on overtime.

Overtime ended up costing $579,858 last year, exceeding the budgeted $400,422.

The county’s 2013 budget optimistically allocated $400,000 for overtime, and $315,400, or 79 percent, was spent as of May 30.

Prison overtime expenses have fluctuated in recent years, ranging from $872,000 in 2007 to a low of $400,422 in 2010.

Inmate decline

The average daily inmate population at the main Water Street prison and nearby minimal offender’s unit ranged monthly from 592 to 657 this year to date, hovering around 602 this month.

It’s a significant drop from 2006, when the county had 811 inmates and was forced to pay other counties to house some of them due to overcrowding.

County officials have attributed the population decrease to faster inmate processing and increased use of alternative sentencing programs, including a day reporting center set up three years ago to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison.

The county allocates more than $1 million for day reporting, but prison officials have said the daily cost is $30.58 per offender compared to $94 for prison lodging.

The monthly average number of offenders in the day reporting program ranged from 73 to 85 this year to date, Lawton’s report shows.

These offenders served a combined 10,915 days in the day reporting program so far this year, which saved $692,229 in prison lodging.

Day reporting center participants remain on home confinement and must complete customized treatment plans.

New prison

The inmate population reduction and county’s debt load squelched past discussion about building a new $100 million-plus, 1,500-bed prison.

But Lawton said Monday he still wants to determine if efficiency savings from a new, smaller prison would offset the construction costs.

J. Allen Nesbitt, the county’s new correctional services division head, is studying options, Lawton said.

“We won’t move to another level until we have a sense of whether or not this makes financial sense on a very fundamental basis,” Lawton said of new construction.

The original prison was completed in 1870 at a cost of $302,537, and a $12 million expansion and renovation was completed in 1987, his report said.

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