BEDFORD - The Bedford County Prison is set to lose eight jobs through attrition, dismissal and outright layoffs, making it the first office to take a hit in the county's worsening financial crisis.
Prison officials this week sent union representatives a letter indicating full-time positions would soon drop to 36 from 44, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees officer Barry Pearce said Wednesday.
"We get to lead the way," Pearce said, noting that the prison's hefty expense to the county likely put it on the chopping block first.
With Bedford County facing a projected $600,000 year-end deficit, offices throughout the county could take cuts as the weeks go on. Part of the shortfall stems from $250,000 that President Judge Thomas Ling has not turned over to the county
Attempts to reach Ling and Commissioners Chairman Kirt Morris were unsuccessful Wednesday.
"I would hope that the county commissioners and the prison board are not using AFSCME members as pawns" in their dispute, Pearce said.
Pearce said he'll drive to Bedford today to meet with corrections officers, with a second meeting scheduled Tuesday to explain details of the layoffs. Guards with the least seniority are the first to be cut, he said.
Sheriff Charwin Reichelderfer, the jail's acting commander since Warden Donald Orr's June resignation, said natural attrition and a guard's recent disciplinary firing could dampen the layoffs' blow. He didn't say with certainty how many officers will have to be furloughed.
The job losses likely won't all come at once: Seven corrections officers are on leave for injuries, schooling and personal reasons, Pearce said, and each time a more senior officer returns, one at the bottom of the list will be forced out.
"I'm just trying to prepare" for when the county's financial problems become insurmountable, Reichelderfer said. "I don't think any department in this building is going to be unscathed."
Reichelderfer said he hopes his reputation for austerity - including recent moves to close a jail block and reduce last year's $157,000 in overtime pay - would help protect the sheriff's department from serious cuts.
County labor representatives dismissed commissioners' recent claims that they've kept in touch with unions - officials from the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 26 county workers, and AFSCME said they've yet to hear from the commissioners.
Leah Wright, a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 668, said she learned of the county's finances and possible layoffs only after reading recent news reports.
"We would love to have that conversation with them [the commissioners]," Wright said, noting that union representatives would propose cost-saving alternatives. "We obviously don't think layoffs are the answer."
Morris said Tuesday that the county would likely lose more than 20 workers, with the commissioners unable to meet payroll needs amid their ongoing dispute with Ling.
Ling has refused to turn over hundreds of thousands of dollars since the commissioners stopped forwarding cash for supplemental pay - "bonuses," as Morris put it - to the county probation office. The ongoing dispute, coupled with slow-moving state funds and constant expenses, has put the county roughly $450,000 in the red.
And while resolution of the Ling-commissioners dispute could bring relief, fresh tax revenue won't flow into the county's coffers until next year, Reichelderfer said.
"I'm curious to see what happens," he said. "I'm not looking forward to it, I'll tell you that."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.