Schenectady County

County to hire 20 jail guards

Schenectady County officials expect to meet a state mandate to hire 20 additional corrections office
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Schenectady County officials expect to meet a state mandate to hire 20 additional corrections officers at the jail next year at a cost of approximately $1 million, putting further pressure on efforts to develop a balanced budget for 2009 while facing declining revenues and other increasing costs.

Separately, corrections officers voted Monday to reject a three-year contract with the county, although two other elements of the same bargaining unit did approve the agreement.

The county is hiring the extra officers under order by the state Commission of Correction. The state is mandating that staffing increase to approximately 160 officers and supervisors. The jail has 140 officers currently.

The state issued the order in 2006 as part of a report critical of county procedures that led to the escape of a dangerous jail inmate earlier that year. The commission is a state agency charged with overseeing local jails and with establishing standards for their operation.

County Attorney Chris Gardner said the county intends to comply. “We don’t have a choice.”

A spokesman for the union representing corrections officers earlier called the jail “grossly understaffed” for years.

Sheriff Harry Buffardi said he included money in his 2008-2009 budget for the extra officers. He said each officer costs, on average, $50,000, which includes salary and benefits.

Buffardi on Tuesday said he expects the added staffing will help reduce his annual overtime budget. He budgeted $1.5 million for overtime this year. He has not determined his overtime budget for 2009, saying he hasn’t calculated the figure yet. “There would be some savings,” Buffardi said.

He said he will still have to use overtime at the jail, even with the added staffing. “We will always have overtime for things that don’t fit into schedules, like transporting prisoners,” he said.

Buffardi’s total budget in 2008 is $11.7 million, of which $9.5 million covers jail operations. The remainder is for administrative costs, for the road patrol and for the sheriff’s civil office.

Buffardi said he is trying to control costs at the county jail but must comply with the state order. “I would like to run this place at minimal staffing cost. I don’t want more government here; the state is demanding this,” he said.

He said staffing is an issue in jails throughout the state. In some instances, the commission has ordered counties to build new jails.

The state commission issued its report during Buffardi’s re-election campaign. Buffardi, a Democrat, easily won a third four-year term despite the harsh report. Democratic Party leaders called the report’s timing political.

The state also cited jail understaffing as a contributing factor in the August 2007 gang assault of a young inmate. Buffardi at the time denied that understaffing was a cause, rather that the jail guard overseeing the inmates failed to do his job. The jail guard resigned rather than face internal charges of gross negligence.

UNION VOTE

Gardner said the 140 officers voted against the agreement because of increases in health care co-payments, among other issues. The specific vote count was not available.

“The union wants to go back and talk to their members,” Gardner said. “We will continue to negotiate until there is an impasse.” The state Public Employment Relations Board would mediate any impasse, he said.

Union President Ron Walsh had no comment, other than to say, “We will continue negotiations.”

The corrections officers are members of the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Benevolent Association. Two other units of the PBA, the 10-member road patrol and the 17-member supervisors’ unit, approved the contract Monday, Gardner said.

They will receive 3 percent raises in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The road patrol will also receive a 3 percent raise retroactive to 2006.

The Schenectady County Legislature Tuesday night voted to approve the agreement with the two groups.

The contract is similar to those approved by the county’s two other major bargaining units, the 800-member Local 847 of the Civil Service Employees Association and the 180-member SEIU District Council 1199. The county expects to save more than $2 million by 2008 through changes in health care coverage.

Sheriff Harry Buffardi said he sought unsuccessfully to include two provisions in the contract. He wanted to authorize random drug testing for employees and also authorize mandatory overtime for shifts in the jail.

Currently, the sheriff can only order an employee to undergo drug testing for cause and supervisors can only offer overtime to department personnel who request it.

Buffardi said a prior court case determined the county cannot enforce mandatory overtime except in emergencies.

The corrections officers, in turn, wanted to eliminate Buffardi’s disciplinary system, he said. The system allows him to easily fire corrections officers. Officers can attempt to recover their jobs through arbitration, however.

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