A surge in call-offs, or workers taking emergency days off, is helping break the overtime budget at the Blair County Prison, even as the number of inmates has dropped precipitously.
Inmate population as of last Thursday stood at 261, the lowest it has been this year. The prison had more than 330 inmates in January.
During a salary board meeting last week, County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti indicated that the prison's 2013 budget included $100,000 for overtime.
That's about what the county spent on prison overtime last year, Warden Michael Johnston reported.
The county is only midway through the eighth month of its budget year, and already overtime costs at the prison stand at $172,398.
Overtime at the prison was discussed in June when overtime costs burgeoned past the $100,000 mark. Since then, overtime costs have gotten worse, Tomassetti reported.
For the two-week pay period ending July 12, prison overtime costs stood at $16,497, and for pay period ending July 26, it came in at $10,106.
Compared to other county departments, the prison's overtime stands out.
For the same two pay periods, overtime at the 911 Emergency Communications Department was $2,761 and $2,550, Children Youth & Families, $1,996 and $1,858, and sheriff's department, $486 and $641.
The warden was able to offer explanations for some of overtime, but the members of the county salary and prison boards, which mostly include the same people like the commissioners and the controller among others, indicated that the overtime issue needed study and attention.
The prison population has dropped, Johnston explained, because arrangements are being made to more quickly move the state-sentenced inmates out of the county prison. Prison personnel transport state-sentenced male inmates to the State Correctional Institutions at Camp Hill and females to SCI Muncy.
Last Thursday when the Prison Board met, 14 inmates were facing state sentences.
Prison personnel begin their transport to the state facilities at 7 a.m., and their normal shifts must be filled by others.
The warden said that recently two inmates were hospitalized (one remains hospitalized), which also means around-the-clock security, which also causes overtime.
The primary reason, he said, for overtime, however, is call-offs.
The present contract between the corrections officers and the county, which remains in place despite its expiration at the beginning of the year, allows employees six call-off days without discipline.
A call-off may be a family sick day, explained Johnston, meaning a corrections officer might request a day off because his wife is sick.
It may include an emergency vacation day. An example is when employee's car may have broken down, requiring him to miss work.
In a recent two-week pay period, Johnston said there were 61 call-offs.
An employee call-off must be requested two hours before the shift begins.
When a call-off is requested, prison staff must find a replacement, either a fill-in or overtime worker. That takes "hours a day to deal with this," Johnston said.
The fact that the prison population is down has little to do with overtime, he said.
The Blair County Prison consists of several sections: the old building constructed before 1900, a new building constructed in the 1990s and a new wing for female inmates only recently constructed.
Johnston gave an example, noting that in a section of the prison called E-Block, there are 66 beds.
One employee must be on duty at all times in E-Block, and it doesn't matter if there are 66 inmates or, as is the case last week, 48 inmates.
Tomassetti said last week that call-offs are an issue in the ongoing contract negotiations between the county and prison employees. Each side has presented it side to an arbitrator and is awaiting a ruling.
At the prison board meeting last week, Tomassetti, talking about the call-off issue, stated, "It looks like something is going on."
Controller Richard Peo suggested that maybe the county should budget more for overtime next year.
But, he added, "If it's a contract problem, we need to say it's a contract problem."
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.