Booking center short on funds

Blair County’s finance director has alerted members of the county prison board that the new Central Booking Center is coming up short on funds each month because original operational cost estimates did not anticipate the staff of the facility receiving benefits.

Central Booking, which opened last August after years of planning, is located in a portion of the original wing of the county prison.

It is a facility where police officers from all the municipalities can take suspects to be photographed and fingerprinted and allows the officers to get back on the streets without having to wait for arraignment, which is done by videoconferencing.

The center is working well, but county Finance Director Robert Kuntz has determined that the income is not keeping pace with the expenses, even though the average monthly income is growing.

The county started its financial year with $187,295 it had saved for Central Booking expenses.

Kuntz said through May the balance of the fund stood at $145,538, meaning a shortfall of more than $8,000 a month.

He projected a balance of $106,384 by the end of the county’s financial year.

“Sometime in 2015 the Central Booking account will run out of cash,” Kuntz told the prison board this week.

Blair County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti, who chairs the county prison board and the board of commissioners, said the income-cost problem at Central Booking is fixable by possibly shifting of staff between the facility and the prison.

He said Friday Central Booking’s finances are the lesser problem, and another problem emerged during the discussion of finances – overtime costs and call-offs by the prison staff.

Not all bad news

Not all was bad news last Thursday during the prison’s financial review.

Prison expenses as a whole are running under budget by $16,833 over the first five months of 2013.

But, as the figures showed, there are massive overtime expenses.

For instance, the county prison has a budget of more than $5 million and, at the five-month point, overtime expenses should be at $42,308, Kuntz’s figures showed.

Overtime expenses actually stood at $104,156, or $61,848 over budget.

Overtime has burgeoned because officers are calling off more on a daily basis. A call-off can be for sickness, family illness or emergency vacation days.

In the pay period between May 11 to May 24, there were 56 call-offs.

Another 76 call-offs came for the period May 25-June 7.

The call-offs are directly related to greater overtime costs, although Warden Michael M. Johnston stated that medical calls, where an officer must transport an inmate to the hospital, represents another major cause of overtime.

Johnston reported that the prison had an inmate in a Pittsburgh hospital for five days, and that required around-the-clock security.

The prison has a policy that employees can have six call-offs, known as “occurrences,” before discipline is taken. Johnston said that the policy is too lenient and that other prisons have less lenient “occurrence” policies before disciplinary action can be taken.

The prison board includes Tomassetti, commissioners Diane Meling and Ted A. Beam, Judge Daniel J. Milliron, District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio, Sheriff Mitchell Cooper and Controller Richard Peo.

The meeting Thursday was designed to inform the board members of status of the budget and to get members thinking about the problem areas.

The board did not get into solutions to the problems but Tomassetti concluded Friday, “We must control overtime. This is the far bigger issue.”

Sharpen the pencils

When it comes to Central Booking, Tomassetti said, “I prefer we sharpen the pencils, make cuts and be as efficient as we can as opposed to [increasing] fines.”

Central Booking is being supported by fees imposed on defendants.

Central Booking fee collections began in 2010, with an average of $2,366 being collected monthly. That amount went to $11,942 in 2011, $14,259 in 2012 and $16,467 this year, although the collections vary month-to-month.

Originally the cost of the Booking Center was to include only wages paid to fill-in or part-time officers who do not receive benefits.

The county, however, earlier this year was told after a grievance was filed that it had to hire the fill-ins fulltime, which meant they were entitled to benefits like medical care and life insurance.

The payment of overtime and the use of fill-ins has resulted in a lesser-than-expected payment of staff salaries.

Kuntz’s figures showed that wages to full-time officers cost $1,243,359 over the first five months, or $76,444 under budget, which is why overall expenses are below budget.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.