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Prison a big factor in taxes

Facility’s costs help determine real estate levy

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Costs associated with running Blair County’s aged prison, which houses, feeds and cares for 300-plus inmates daily, will likely be a big factor in determining the 2020 real estate tax levy needed to balance the county’s general fund budget.

During a review Friday of prison-related budget requests, county leaders looked over figures reflecting a prior decision to hire more corrections officers.

And they looked at additional figures reflecting a desire to undertake building repairs and to replace worn-out equipment, especially in the prison’s kitchen.

“Everything has been let go for so long,” Warden Abbie Tate told county leaders on Friday. “It’s just like the courtrooms upstairs.”

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb suggested Tate assign priority rankings to the prison expenses and consider the purchase of longer-use equipment through a future loan or bond issue. With additional budget meetings scheduled for next week, he promised further review.

Tate’s equipment requests totaled $262,000, including almost $50,000 that a local company suggested would be enough to replace the kitchen’s aged equipment.

“There’s only one piece of equipment in the kitchen that doesn’t need to be replaced,” Tate said.

That’s a toaster the prison bought earlier this year.

Ted Beam Jr., who now chairs the prison board, agreed with Erb about the need for prison expenses to be prioritized and reviewed.

Beam said the prison’s budget is also a reminder of the county’s fiscal limitations and the cuts that departments will have to make to their budgets.

Beam said that’s one reason why he will vote against a proposed part-time staff member for the commissioners office, for grant writing and public relations work. Commissioner Terry Tomassetti has been advocating for the position, which the 2020 draft budget suggests at $20,000 annually.

“I’m definitely voting no on that,” Beam said Friday. “We’ve promised to the taxpayers that even though we have a new tax base (through reassessment), we would remain fiscally conservative.”

One portion of the prison’s proposed budget that will increase in 2020 is staff salaries, estimated at $4.41 million, an increase of almost $1 million over the projected expense of $3.36 million for 2019.

That increase reflects the commissioners’ decision in late 2018 to hire an additional 13 corrections officers as a safety improvement. Because those corrections officers were hired incrementally in 2019, total salaries are projected to add up to $3.36 million in 2019. The 2020 figure, however, reflects a full year of higher-level staffing and includes projected raises associated with a union contract that’s under arbitration review.

Inmate medical care also factors into prison’s budget projections.

While the county contracts with PrimeCare Medical at $1.14 million for most care, additional costs are incurred for additional medical treatment, based on the inmate’s condition and requirements. The county’s cost for 2019 will probably come in around $1.56 million, Finance Director Jennifer Sleppy advised.

A lot of the inmates have chronic conditions and illnesses, Tate said.

Erb also asked Tate how many inmates are under the influence when admitted and Tate responded: “A lot.”

And when inmates refuse to disclose what they’ve taken that’s causing their condition, she said they must be transported to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

“We don’t have the medical facility for that,” she said.

The prison’s budget for food, estimated at $1 million in 2020, also drew attention.

While food costs are higher when the prison’s population is higher, Erb said he thinks the projected cost for food could be cut by 10 to 15 percent with the hiring of a food service manager who has expertise in bulk purchases and portion management.

“Our food budget is way higher than it needs to be,” Erb said. “And other facility feeding 300 people daily would have a food service manager.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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