County prison laying off 8

October 13, 2012

Luzerne County is laying off eight prison correctional officers effective Nov. 1, county Manager Robert Lawton announced Friday.

Another 10 budgeted correctional officer positions will be eliminated. The workers who had filled these positions are on workers' compensation or family/medical leave at this time, officials said.

If any of the 10 return to work, an employee with the least seniority must be furloughed, officials said.

The county was seeking cuts to erase the remaining projected $875,000 year-end deficit and the loss of a $1.4 million one-time revenue fix next year.

But the driving factor was an effort to "staff accordingly," Lawton said.

The administration calculated the number of positions needed to "do the job at hand" and comply with minimum staffing levels in the collective bargaining agreement as part of an ongoing evaluation, he said.

Lawton said he would impose the same staff cuts if the county had a surplus.

"This is proactive – not reactive," Lawton said. "This is how you efficiently run an agency."

Lawton said the same approach will be applied to other county departments to determine if reductions are warranted.

Prison union head Tom Borum, of the LIUNA Public Service Employees' Union Local 1310, said the cuts comply with the union contract but leave no breathing room.

"The jail is going to be running at its extreme minimum," Borum said. "We're going to be stretched thin."

Though Borum is "not happy" to lose eight employees, he said he appreciates the administration's efforts to discuss the reductions with the union.

"The last time, we were given a number and told to deal with it. This time they came to us to see how we could most efficiently work together to make this number work," Borum said.

The public should not be alarmed, he said.

"We do have a much more trained professional staff that will rise to any occasion to make the numbers work. Public safety will be protected at all costs," Borum said.

The elimination of eight positions will save roughly $400,000 annually, though prison officials are still calculating the exact figure. At least $500,000 can be removed from the prison budget for the vacant positions.

The action will reduce the number of prison correctional officers from 189 to 171, while maintaining minimum staffing levels required by the collective bargaining agreement, Lawton said.

"All existing posts at the prison will be fully staffed on all three shifts, seven days a week, just as before," he wrote in an email briefing county council on the development.

The prison was in the process of notifying the eight affected employees Friday.

County Prison Warden Joe Piazza said he is confident the new staff size will be sufficient to "run the facility in a safe and secure manner."

The county prison system, which includes a minimal offenders' building, has the most employees of all county departments and has sustained the largest number of staff cuts in recent years.

The correctional system had 338 employees in January 2011 and 316 in August, according to Lawton's mid-year financial analysis.

The prison system absorbs 22 percent of the $122.6 million budget, with an allocation of $26.9 million this year.

Lawton will deliver his proposed 2013 budget to council on Monday.

The county's 2012 budget raised property taxes 2 percent, used $1.4 million in past borrowed funds to help repay debt and required about 60 layoffs. A tax increase and use of borrowed funds won't be considered this year, Lawton and council members have said.