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Cut county jail costs Taxpayers, guards and Holding Center could benefit from overtime reduction

For the sake of taxpayers Erie County legislators, the county executive and the county control board should heed County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz's call for practical steps toward reducing overtime at the Holding Center.

There is room for debate on the best way to reach that goal, but the bottom line is that long hours of overtime are costly for the taxpayers and hard on the guards, no matter how easy they may be on the guards' wallets. Overtime now not only runs into the millions each year, it boosts earnings-based pension payouts for years into the future. And it can't be good for jail operations, either.

Poloncarz suggests hiring 11 more guards and using them primarily on weekends, to save up to $2.1 million a year. Currently, Holding Center overtime is running about $8 million per year.

Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard, who oversees the Holding Center, says the total savings would be far less than that because of work rules and the way staffing is mandated by the state. But he definitely could use more help. Because of staff shortages under those same mandates, Erie County soon may lose state capacity variances and be forced to contract with other counties to house prisoners -- an even more expensive way to go.

Details aside, some savings seem possible. The Legislature earlier did approve adding eight deputies, two sergeants and five nurses, but they also added roughly $990,000 to the overtime budget -- a concession that simply accommodates a long-standing problem. A solution is needed.

In his latest audit, Poloncarz found that part of the problem is that many of the senior officers on staff refuse to work weekends and overnights. His office determined in the audit, based on 2005 numbers, that if more guards were hired and used on "less desirable" days, times and hours, overtime would be eliminated on those hours. Based on the 2005 numbers, the additional guards needed would be 11, but that fluctuates on a weekly basis as guards retire or move on.

Overtime at the Holding Center is not a new situation. Former comptroller Nancy Naples looked at the issue years ago, and former sheriff Patrick Gallivan also discussed it. The situation will continue unless it's fully addressed. The $8 million in overtime could be better used to hire new employees to work the less desirable schedules, meeting state staffing mandates, reducing costs and ensuring a safer, more secure prison while saving taxpayers money.

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