NORWICH – Overtime expenses are driving budgetary angst at the Chenango County Correctional Facility as department heads continue a years-long struggle to fill gaps caused by persistent staffing shortages.
The correctional facility is asking county officials that an additional $250,000 be added to its overtime budget, along with another $250,000 to cover fringe benefits – money that would be taken from its part-time officers budget line and from local sales tax revenues.
According to County Undersheriff Josh Gould, the correctional facility on Upper Ravine Road in Norwich is running 10 staffers below the state’s recommended 62 staff needed to maintain smooth operations. As a result, employees, mostly part-timers, are racking up overtime hours, some as much as 12-16 hours per week.
Gould said he expects the situation to only worsen with the anticipated departure of two more corrections officers at the end of the month. He added that being short-handed has not only been a burden to the correctional facility's budget, but it's also made it increasingly difficult for the facility to adhere to a growing list of state mandates.
“It’s not sustainable. We have to figure something out,” Gould said at a meeting of the county’s safety and rules committee last week.
The shortage and overturn of corrections officers is all too familiar to county officials. The correctional facility regularly requests that money be added to its overtime budget to compensate officers who work extra hours to fill staffing shortages. The county board budgeted $641,000 for part-time and overtime expenses in 2021. That figure jumped to roughly $1 million this year; and even more is expected to be added for the 2023 budget, according to County Treasurer Bill Craine.
It’s common for the correctional facility to operate in the red. Craine says the entire facility runs a nearly $1 million deficit each year. Nearly $10 million is budgeted annually, about 90 percent of which is fueled by sales tax revenue, boarding out-of-county inmates, and nominal inmate charges and fees inside the facility. The remaining 10 percent of its budget is footed by real property taxes.
“We routinely do two or three transfers a year,” said Craine, noting the difficulty of retaining officers to man the correctional facility. “It’s a difficult job not meant for everyone. There’s a lot of psychological aspects to it and we have a hard time keeping people.”
The county routinely offers civil service exams to draw potential corrections officers. But the list of candidates is quickly exhausted and the facility deals with constant overturn. Gould said 12 candidates took the last civil service exam that was offered. Of the 12, six were already provisional employees at the correctional facility and background checks were performed for the remaining six. Within three weeks, the list of candidates was exhausted and more provisional employees were already brought on board.
“It’s different now than it has been,” Gould said, noting a history of corrections officers leaving Chenango County for better pay in neighboring Boome or Cortland counties. But he explained that a shrinking wage gap between corrections officers and unrelated industry workers presents an even greater challenge when it comes to retaining employees. “They aren’t going there [to other counties]. They're going to Walmart. They can make as much money at Walmart and not have someone beat them up and throw stuff on them.”
“We might get to the point where officers are working every day and there’s still gaps that need to be filled,” Gould said. “So now what do you do? The only way I think around that is you have to have them start working their days off, and if we get to that point, more people will go.”
The correctional facility has also requested an additional half million for building upkeep and maintenance.
The correctional facility’s requested fund transfer for overtime expenses and facility maintenance will go to the Chenango County Board of Supervisors for approval next month.