Study shows the high costs of jail overtime

Gwen Chamberlain
The Yates County Jail is in the Public Safety Building, which was built in the mid-1970s.

A recent study of overtime and scheduling in the Yates County Jail has revealed that the total cost of full-timers working overtime and the use of part time corrections officers in 2011 was $467,000.

That's a number that alarmed Sheriff Ron Spike, who presented the study to county legislators in December. The study shows areas where the county might be able to make changes to decrease some costs, but implementing those changes could require negotiations with the corrections officer's bargaining unit, or major investment in construction of a new jail.

"I'm hoping some of the suggestions will be looked at," said Donna Alexander, chair of the Public Safety Building and a District I legislator from Middlesex. She expects the Public Safety Committee to spend more time on the study and recommendations. "The committee is busy, but we get a lot of cooperation from the Sheriff," she said.

When the Yates County Public Safety Building was constructed in 1977, the jail was organized according to contemporary standards, but the linear design of the layout requires more staff than the current standard in jail-keeping — direct supervision — says Spike.

That is one of the reasons the portion of the Yates County budget that covers the cost of operating the jail is increasing, he says.

In a direct supervision system, Spike explains, a correctional facility is laid out so a corrections officer can be within sight and sound of more inmates — in some jails, up to 48. In the Yates County Jail's configuration with four cells to a "block," an officer is only able to supervise 12 inmates.

The capacity of the Yates County Jail is 65 inmates, and Spike says if the number of employees that are required to supervise Yates County jail were staffing a direct supervision facility, they could supervise 130 inmates.

That ratio difference could lend significant efficiencies in the budget, but getting to that ratio would be costly.

It would require construction of a new jail layout, something Spike acknowledges is not a popular idea with some Yates County Legislators and taxpayers. But the study, conducted by an outside consultant, concluded that building a new facility might be one of the options to address the increasing amount of overtime worked by corrections officers.

In 2007, county officials looked at opportunities to expand the jail, but took no action.

Alexander says recommendations from that study, which was completed at no charge to the county, never went further than the committee level, mainly due to economic challenges the county faced then. "That (building a new jail) would involve a great change for us. It can't be done at this point. We recognize economic times aren't going to allow that at all, but we have other options," she said.

If a new Yates County Jail was constructed to accomodate the direct supervision design, and was operated at 100 percent capacity, the county could take in $600,000 in revenue annually by housing outside prisoners, according to the study. But the annual debt payment on new construction could be $2 million.

The revenue depends on boarding inmates from federal facilities or from other county jails. Over the past few years, the number of local inmates taking up space in the jail has increased, therefor decreasing the space available to board prisoners.

Spike points out that even with alternative to incarceration programs, like the Sheriff's Weekend Alternatives Program (SWEAP), the number of people booked into the jail has increased in recent years.

In 2011, 486 inmates, including 100 women, were booked into the jail compared to 2002, when 283 inmates were booked in, or 2003, when 356 were housed.

In 2012, 457 were booked in.

Along with the increased number of local prisoners, there could be a lower demand for housing out-of-county inmates, since new or expanded jails have recently opened in neighboring counties.

Finding ways to reduce the use of overtime in the jail was the main purpose of the study, which was presented to the legislature in December.

Spike says the numbers revealed in the study alarmed him. The study shows that 97 percent of the hours are worked by full time employees while part time workers cover three percent.

New York State Department of Corrections requires the jail to employ the equivalent of 45 full time workers with 85 percent of the shifts covered by full-time employees and 15 percent covered by part time workers.

Spike says there are reasons to be concerned about the use of compensatory time, which contributes to a growing number of overtime hours in the jail, two areas that are costing the county more over time.

The study projected the number of overtime hours in 2012 would total 12,410, compared to 11,678 in 2011 and the number of compensatory hours in 2012 would be 2,438 compared to 2.306 in 2011.

Spike explains the use of compensatory time was initiated through an agreement with the Deputy Sheriff's Association (DSA), the collective bargaining unit that represents corrections officers.

Through the agreement, an employee can earn up to 84 hours of "comp time" annually by working overtime hours. For each hour worked, the employee can put an hour and a half into his or her comp time bank.

When that employee uses the comp time, another employee ends up working overtime, either costing time-and-a-half pay or adding "comp time" to his or her bank. "Then it's like a pyramid," says Spike.

Allowing the use of compensatory time to escalate could cost the county about $5,000

There could be ways to change scheduling or staffing to reduce the amount of overtime, but Spike wouldn't be able to initiate changes without negotiations with the DSA.

Another situation has a big impact on the jail budget, and it has nothing to do with supervising jail inmates, but has everything to do with the county court.

When additional staff are needed to provide security in the Yates County courthouse, corrections officers move from the jail to the courthouse for their work shift. While New York State Court Administration reimburses Yates County for the cost of the additional court security, local taxpayers pick up the tab for the cost of covering the empty post in the jail.

The study revealed that corrections officers worked a total of 538 hours in court security from January through August 2012. According to that report, the annualized overtime cost is $26,000.

State Court Administration officials recently denied Spike's appeal for an additional court security worker whose costs would be reimbursed to the county by the court system.

Spike says he continues to look for ways to reduce costs in the Sheriffs Department and has requested the State Department of Criminal Justice Services to look at staffing within the dispatch and law enforcement arms of the Sheriff's Office.

The next Public Safety Committee meeting will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 1 in the Public Health Conference Room at the Yates County Office Building.