Blair to add prison guards

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County’s 2019 draft budget includes $544,000 to add 13 full-time corrections officers at the county prison to improve security and staffing issues.

The additional cost, plus other increases in the prison’s operation, is projected to push that department’s budget to $10.85 million.

For a county with a $60 million annual budget, the prison’s operation is a significant portion, Commissioner Ted Beam Jr. said Thursday.

During the second in a series of meetings to review 2019 budget requests, commissioners acknowledged their support for the hiring proposal that accounts for about half of a projected $1 million increase in the prison budget.

The remainder of the $1 million increase was attributed to higher costs associated with food, utilities, repairs, renovations, equipment and inmate care.

In the coming weeks, the commissioners are expected to try to narrow the gap between 2019’s projected expenses of $58.7 million and revenue of $53.3 million.

The $58.7 million is a compilation of all department requests for 2019, and it includes all raises — including ones that exceed 3 percent — that department heads have requested, Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy said Thursday. Sleppy’s name was misspelled in Thursday’s Mirror.

Commissioners have referred to the $58.7 million figure as “a wish list.”

But the hiring of 13 more corrections officers appears to be one wish that they’re going to grant as another way of responding to a critical study by the state Department of Corrections. While the department has never publicly released the study, prison board Chairman Daniel Milliron has acknowledged that its recommendations included an increase in staff and surveillance cameras, a pending purchase with money in the county’s 2017 bond issue.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said Thursday that he is in favor of hiring more corrections officers for the prison.

“I think we’ve got to do it,” Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said.

Beam also nodded his head to endorse the recommendation.

Warden Abbie Tate, who previously reviewed the prison’s proposed budget with Sleppy, said the additional corrections officers will be a step toward improving security for prison staff and inmates. It could also help reduce overtime, Tate said, but she made no promises during the budget session.

The prison’s staff has been at 95 full-time and part-time corrections officers since early 2016. That’s when the county added 12 full-time officers and reduced the part-time and fill-in officer positions from 35 to 15. The change reduced overtime for a while before it returned to about $40,000 to $60,000 a month.

The pending proposal — which will give the prison a staff of 108 full-time and part-time corrections officers — is expected to increase the number of full-time positions from 80 to 93 while the part-time number remains at 15.

Commissioners are scheduled to continue reviewing the draft 2019 budget through Wednesday with department heads.