Blair County taxpayers are paying a significant price because of a bad provision in the contract governing corrections officers at the county prison authorizing six call-off days without discipline.
This year, the time-off allowance has become a financial albatross for the prison budget, thus the county budget and therefore the people whose hard-earned money keeps the county government operating.
Already in 2013, the shortsighted provision is a big part of why the $100,000, 12-month budget allocation for overtime at the prison has been eclipsed by more than $72,000, and the year still has more than four months remaining.
It's a provision that should not be in effect going forward, but it's anyone's guess what contract language a new pact with the corrections personnel will contain. An arbitrator currently is evaluating contract offers of the county and corrections workers.
Meanwhile, without a new contract in place, the corrections officers have been working under terms of a contract that expired at the start of 2013, which allowed the six call-offs per worker annually.
It's clear that prison personnel have not been conservative this year in the use of this benefit that was intended for emergencies. In fact, if the situation does not constitute abuse of a benefit, it's bordering closely on that categorization.
According to Warden Michael Johnston, there were 61 call-offs during one recent two-week pay period. That means there were 61 instances where the prison had to scramble for either a replacement for the worker who called off or authorize overtime for a corrections officer who was on the job and scheduled to go off duty.
At a time when many private companies have tightened sick leave policies and eliminated paid emergency-leave days, the Blair County Prison call-off days have become a window for neither acting in the best interests of the corrections facility nor the unit of government in charge of ensuring that county operations run efficiently and cost-effectively.
Use of call-off days has not been the only contributor to the out-of-control overtime cost. Some overtime has been necessary when inmates at the Blair facility were being transferred to state prisons, or when around-the-clock security had to be provided for a hospitalized inmate.
However, Johnston confirmed the main reason for the overtime money problem has been the call-offs, and county taxpayers are justified in being angry about the situation.
County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti's observation in the Aug. 20 Mirror that, "It looks like something is going on" is an understatement of the problem, and Controller Richard Peo was wrong in suggesting as an option budgeting more for overtime.
To his credit, Peo went on to add, "If it's a contract problem, we need to say it's a contract problem."
County officials should openly admit that it is, and ask why union leaders aren't actively discouraging overuse of the benefit.
Officials also should admit that county leaders were to blame for ever affixing their signatures to a pact with a provision so potentially detrimental to county finances and the taxpayers.
That must not happen again.