Last updated: February 19. 2013 8:37PM - 549 Views

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Luzerne County Prison Warden Joseph Piazza defended the decades-old practice of providing free meals to 20 management workers and sometimes other staff, saying he'd like to expand the meals to union workers.

Piazza insisted during Tuesday's county council budget hearing that the workers receive the same meals as inmates prepared in the prison kitchen at a cost of roughly $1.33 per meal.

He said the meals keep workers at the prison in case they're needed and prevent the potential for workers to bring drugs or other contraband into the facility.Piazza said he wants to encourage workers to remain in the building because the staff of 306 is often stretched thin.

For example, he said a lieutenant from the prison has to keep an eye on the minimal offenders building during some shifts because he doesn't have enough managers to fully cover that facility.

If you want the meals gone, it will cost more in the long run, Piazza said.

A survey of 51 of the 63 county prisons last week showed all provide free meals to all prison employees, he said. Only four or five of these county prisons required employees to pay some or all of the expense, he said. Piazza said the meals are primarily provided to managers, though the offering has widened to include some other workers, such as union workers overseeing inmates on cleanup projects.

County Manager Robert Lawton discontinued the free meals after complaints from county Councilman Edward Brominski. Council members asked Lawton to review the practice to determine if it should be restored.

The county typically has about 750 inmates. The prison budget is slated to increase from $26.9 million to $29.6 million next year.

County Controller Walter Griffith told council he is auditing prison food expenses at the request of council and should have findings in about a week.

Council members wished Piazza well because Lawton informed them Piazza plans to retire at the end of the month. Piazza, a retired state prison superintendent, was hired as county prison warden in February 2009, replacing Gene Fischi, who retired.

Piazza, of Pringle, said before the meeting he has been thinking about retirement for awhile, and the decision had nothing to do with the controversy over free meals. He and his family are still struggling over the unexpected death of his 26-year-old son in March, he said.

It's been very stressful. I want to spend more time with my family, he said.

Citizen Michael Giamber told council there's a simple fix for the prison food – requiring employees to pay for their meals.

County Chief Public Defender Al Flora also discussed his budget, which is slated to increase $249,065 to $2.7 million next year. Flora compared his staff of 39 full-time and part-time employees -- the equivalent of 32.25 full-timers -- to the larger staff count in the district attorney's office, which has the equivalent of 58.5 full-time employees.

There's a major difference in the staffing, particularly the support staff, Flora said.

Council may adopt the $122.25 million budget on Tuesday, Dec. 11. Lawton said the budget will result in 21 layoffs.Council did not make a decision on whether to grant raises for non-union employees during the meeting, which wrapped up around 11 p.m.

Lawton discouraged raises based on performance evaluations and said $1,000 across-the-board increases for 265 employees will cost the general fund about $100,000, while the remainder will be funded by the state or other outside sources.

The expense may be funded by reducing $750,000 allocated for supplies countywide, he said.

Lawton also told council the county faces a $6 million year-end cash flow shortage, and the administration is trying to borrow funds from other accounts to cover debt and payroll. He said the county would have funds if the state provided timely reimbursement for the Children and Youth department. The state owes the county $6.8 million.

State Reps. Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township, and Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, also attended the budget hearing to express concerns about a county letter sent to foster care families indicating they had to select outside providers to handle management of their cases, instead of relying on the county.

Lawton said he did not know about the letter but never authorized it. He said a new letter will be issued today stressing families are free to continue receiving county oversight. Lawton said the proposed 2012 budget does not privatize management of foster care cases. The Children and Youth budget provides funding for 11 additional caseworkers next year, which will bring the count to 100, he said. Another 17 vacant caseworker positions will be eliminated, he said.

Lawton hires new election director

Luzerne County Council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the county's Emergency Management Agency building, Water Street, Wilkes-Barre.

County Manager Robert Lawton has hired Marisa Crispell-Barber as the new county election director, according to an email he sent to council. Crispell-Barber will be paid $50,000 annually and start Dec. 10. She currently works for Wyoming County but has been temporarily overseeing Luzerne County's election office since interim director Tom Pizano's sudden retirement in October. Pizano had agreed to add election bureau oversight to his duties as interim clerk of courts in April, after Leonard Piazza was terminated as election director. Crispell-Barber, 33, of Dallas, has held various positions in Wyoming County.

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