Prison call-off problem must be addressed

The Blair County Prison Board has begun the year on the wrong foot regarding the ongoing corrections officers call-off problem that last year cost taxpayers more than $321,000.

Taxpayers could be on the hook for another big amount by the end of 2014 if the board remains as detached from solving the problem as it seemed to be during its Jan. 16 meeting.

While it was announced that the number of call-offs had reached an all-time high of 162 in December, it was revealed January’s call-offs to date were grounds for serious concern as well, despite revised call-off guidelines in a new labor agreement that took effect Jan. 1.

At the meeting, the board not only failed to make progress, it actually took a step backward, thanks to Judge Daniel J. Milliron, a board member.

During the meeting, Milliron said he didn’t consider the corrections officers or their union – Local 3157 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – the problem. He blamed the board, for failing to find answers to the problem.

The board also comprises the county commissioners, controller, district attorney and sheriff. While the board must shoulder blame for agreeing to a new labor agreement that is turning out to be inadequate on the issue, the corrections officers, not board members, are the people most at fault – and with them, their union, for failing to discourage the excessive absences.

Meanwhile, prison board members shouldn’t have to personally escort the corrections officers to mandatory training sessions dealing with the attendance rules contained in the new contract.

The officers carry out their duties responsibly at the prison; they should be just as responsible regarding attending the mandatory classes.

As of Jan. 16, only 41 of the prison’s more than 80 officers had attended.

Warden Michael M. Johnston told the board that during the first two weeks of this month, there were 58 call-offs, only 29 due to illness. January’s impact on their tax bills should be of interest to every property owner.

In addition to Milliron’s off-target observation, the meeting also produced another disturbing viewpoint, this one from the union local’s president, Frank Bailey.

Bailey blamed the problem on many union members not understanding the new policy.

The union should be pressing its members to attend the classes that would end misunderstanding.

The main product of the Jan. 16 meeting was the board’s decision to confer with the county’s labor lawyer, David Andrews, about what sanctions could be imposed if corrections officers continue to ignore their obligation to attend the mandatory classes. The board also decided to keep a close watch on the number of call-offs, but “watching” accomplished little in the past.

“It’s up to us … I hold us accountable,” Milliron said.

But the problem isn’t going to be resolved if the board remains committed to being nice to the corrections officers at the taxpayers’ expense.

It’s time for the board to get on the right foot and remain there, first by placing blame on the corrections officers, where the blame belongs.