Chesterton Tribune

 
 

Commissioners to pony up $2 million against county shortfall jail staffing problems loom

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By KEVIN NEVERS

There was good news from the Porter County Council’s 2013 budget meeting on Thursday.

And some bad news.

Begin with the good: Porter County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, told members that he and Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, have agreed to make available $2 million in unallocated CEDIT funds to cover a budget shortfall estimated at between $1.7 million and $1.9 million.

Now the bad: it’s likely to cost an annual $1.5 million—going forward—to hire enough new staff at the Porter County Jail to meet the recommendations of a not-yet-released study by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC).

How the Commissioners’ largesse will be used by the County Council in the 2013 budget is not at this point known. Nor was Sheriff Dave Lain able to say exactly how much the new hires would cost, as the final NIC report will probably not be available for at least a week. The County Council took no action on Thursday, except to face squarely the fact that times are tough, money is tight, and some sort of innovative approach to county finances is sorely needed.

Evans made it clear that the $2 million is hardly a solution, of any kind. “We realize this will not be a permanent fix,” he said but did note that it will go a long way immediately to relieving some of the pressure created by the shortfall.

After the meeting Evans told the Chesterton Tribune that CEDIT funds—revenues from the County Economic Development Income Tax—may now legally be used for operations: for salaries, supplies, and any other line item in the General Fund.

The County Council, for its part, expressed its gratitude to Evans for the boon. “That’s fantastic, John,” said President Dan Whitten, D-at large. “Thanks very much.”

PCJ

Meanwhile, things at PCJ aren’t looking so rosy, where the NIC has already made note of the crying need for around-the-clock medical services. “The largest single liability the county faces is the efficiency of the jail’s medical coverage,” Lain told members. “We have dodged innumerable bullets over the course of time. There’s never been enough money to provide trained medical staff 24/7.”

“When in doubt, my staff sends inmates to the hospital,” Lain added. “And that becomes very expensive.”

“I implore you to consider getting the Porter County Jail to a point where we have qualified medical personnel on the scene seven days a week around the clock.”

The County Council wanted to know specifically how many personnel Lain has in mind.

A supervisor and seven registered nurses, Lain replied.

But medical services are only part of the problem, Lain emphasized. PCJ is also badly understaffed. Lain was unwilling to speak in a public meeting about the specific security challenges posed by the understaffing but he did say that his jail officers are “daily stopping incidents from happening.”

A total of 16 new jail officers would be needed to put PCJ on any kind of adequate staffing level, Lain said—and would also permit the opening of the facility’s third pod—but even 16 would be ultimately too few.

“If we gave you everything you’re asking for, you still would not be comfortable?” asked Member Sylvia Graham, D-at large.

“The immediate need is 16,” Lain said. “But we could use more than that.”

Lain’s estimated annual cost for the needed medical staff and new jail officers: $1.478 million.

That, Whitten observed, “will cause a substantial recurring cost to the General Fund.”

Member Jim Biggs, R-1st, concurred. “In my opinion, (PCJ) is the single largest, most concerning item in the budget.”

New Environment Needed

In the end the only viable long-term solution to the problem of county finances is a new approach to governance, Biggs said. “We’re going to have to get leaner and smarter. That’s all there is to it. Investing in ourselves and doing things in a better, more efficient way.

Evans agreed and said that he’s had discussions with Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas and Portage Mayor Jon Snyder about centralized purchasing and possibly the establishment of a shared human-resources department.

But it’s also going to take everyone’s cooperation. “If people left the county and tried to get health insurance on their own, they’d be shocked,” Whitten said. “Going to the doctor two times in three days for a sore throat, that’s the kind of thing that drives our insurance. We’re going to need the help of our employees.”

 

 

Posted 8/31/2012