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Audit finds ways to save $2.1 million in jail overtime

The Erie County Sheriff's Office could save more than $2 million a year in overtime paid to its jail deputies by scheduling them more wisely and tightening rules already in place, the county comptroller said Wednesday.

Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said his auditors found ways to wring $6.3 million in costs from the sheriff's jail-management division, with most of the savings found at the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo, which takes in about 20,000 prisoners a year.

For years, overtime paid at the Holding Center has been a whopping cost for county taxpayers -- $7 million to $8 million a year. The county must maintain staff levels ordered by the state Commission of Correction, and county analyses performed years ago concluded that hiring more deputies to eliminate rampant overtime doesn't necessarily save taxpayer money.

To completely eliminate mandatory overtime, the Holding Center would need 90 deputies more than it had in 2005, which Poloncarz said does not make economic sense.

However, auditors found that hiring a handful would control the spike in overtime pay found on weekends, when more than half of the Holding Center guards are on overtime. Auditors said it may be possible to save $2.1 million a year simply by hiring 11 more deputies and scheduling more deputies to work Saturdays and Sundays as part of their regular shifts.

"I have no doubt that this is going to be an extremely valuable document for us to use, both in requesting additional staffing and in preparing future schedules," Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said. "In large part, it independently validates what I and at least two former sheriffs have asserted: that the facility is grossly understaffed and that we are not being fairly compensated by the state, and to a lesser degree the federal government, for the cost of keeping their inmates."

At the Holding Center Annex in Alden, auditors found a curious practice. The department stations two deputies rather than one in open-dorm housing units whenever a unit's population rises above 48, even though the state says just one deputy can be posted.

Auditors were told the need for two guards stems from an agreement with Teamsters Local 264, which represents Holding Center deputies. But when auditors requested a copy of the provision, none could be produced. They now doubt it exists, and at one point Poloncarz referred to it as "the alleged agreement."

The use of two deputies to staff the six units around the clock requires 32 positions and costs Erie County more than $2.1 million a year, the report said.

Poloncarz also repeated a lament voiced by county officials around New York: Local jails must hold inmates bound for state prisons at a financial loss. In Erie County, an inmate costs $115 a day, but state government reimburses only $34 a day for its prisoners. The federal government reimburses about $94.

Together, those inmates cost Erie County about $2 million in 2005 -- the year studied by auditors. "Erie County is, in effect, subsidizing the state and federal governments," Poloncarz said, calling on the State Legislature to raise the reimbursement rate.

The comptroller's staff said sheriff's officials should tighten their payroll record-keeping. For example, certain employees are given time-and-a-half pay for the minutes in which they report to work early. The tallying of this so-called lineup pay, usually 15 minutes, requires employees to be honest. But since taxpayers spend $1.2 million a year on lineup pay, auditors recommended a more formal system to guard against abuse.

Sheriff's officers also are passing up about $100,000 a year by not billing the health plans of inmates who enter the jail system with their own health care, the report said. Howard, however, considers that estimate to be high and says it's the county Health Department's job to bill those insurers.

The Holding Center has been studied before, both to make it run less expensively and to avert the need to build a new multimillion-dollar jail better equipped to handle the number of prisoners. In 2005, a study group formed by County Executive Joel A. Giambra recommended freeing more low-risk defendants and keeping track of them with new technology rather than holding them in cells.

Giambra had asked Poloncarz to conduct a management audit of the Holding Center operation, and the comptroller agreed to do so in 2006. Poloncarz said Wednesday that he was surprised at how time-consuming the study became. "I almost had the entire audit staff on it," he said.

Overtime pay has placed some jail deputies among county government's highest-paid workers, earning more than $100,000 a year. Overtime opportunities are given on the basis of seniority, but someone has to work it, so for many it becomes mandatory.

Forty deputies worked more than 65 hours a week on average in 2005, with one working the equivalent of nearly two full shifts a day each day for two weeks.

"Auditors noticed anecdotal evidence of frustration among deputies that they are forced to work mandatory overtime," the report said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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