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County studies prison privatization

Saving money cited as goal

Butler County officials are researching whether privatizing the county prison is a viable option to save money.

Under the county’s 2014 budget of $194.7 million, the prison is the largest expense at $10.6 million.

Commissioner Dale Pinkerton, county prison board chairman, said the idea came from seeing other counties, Lawrence and Mercer, looking into the possibility of privatization.

“It’s just something to look at,” Pinkerton said. “We’re just trying to gather information.”

He said cost savings would be the reason to privatize, which would entail a company operating the prison, which has a capacity for 512 beds, and employing its staff.

As of Friday, there were 354 inmates in the prison.

The county tried privatizing the prison before in the mid-1980s, but it reversed course after a couple years.

Commissioner Bill McCarrier agreed the only goal now is to seek information.

McCarrier said he does not support or oppose privatization at this juncture.

“I have no opinion whatsoever,” he said.

However, Sheriff Mike Slupe, who is on the prison board, does have a stance on the issue.

“At this point in time, I’m not in favor of privatizing the prison,” Slupe said.

He said the county would lose certain controls of the prison, making it harder to coordinate the transportation of inmates to and from the facility.

District Attorney Richard Goldinger, who also is on the prison board, said he has no opinion on privatization, but is willing to review any data the county compiles.

“If there is information to consider, I’ll look at it,” Goldinger said.

Prison board member Judge William Shaffer declined to comment.

Fellow board member County Controller Ben Holland also is willing to evaluate all the options.

“If the savings were substantial, I’d be open to it,” Holland said.

But he said questions need to be answered, such as whether the county still has full jurisdiction of a privatized facility.

Commissioner Jim Eckstein opposes the idea. He said costs could be controlled through such measures as negotiating a union contract for prison workers that benefits both sides.

“I want to come to an amicable agreement that’s good for the taxpayers and workers,” Eckstein said.

The four-year contract for corrections officers ends in December. Negotiations are to begin this year.

Eckstein said it’s premature to look at privatization.

According to Eckstein, government should run prisons.

“There’s more oversight,” he said.

Mercer County is preparing a request from proposals for companies seeking to manage its prison.

Mercer County Controller Tom Amundsen, Mercer prison board chairman, said cost is the issue there as well.

However, Amundsen said his county wants to ensure its prison runs efficiently— something that’s happening now.

“I don’t want a call in the middle of the night,” he said.

Lawrence County went so far as sending out a request for proposals that only one company answered.

That firm was Community Education Centers of West Caldwell, N.J., which operates the only privately managed county prison in Pennsylvania: the George W. Hill prison in Delaware County.

However, Lawrence County’s plans changed.

Lawrence County Commissioner Dan Vogler, board chairman, said his county reached an agreement with its correction officers, resulting in a new three-year contract.

“We have concluded we will not be moving forward with privatization,” Vogler said.

He said the workers agreed to a contract that benefitted the county.

“It was helpful to the county from a fiscal standpoint,” Vogler said of the new contract.

He said even if a new contract had not been signed, some prison board members had concerns from a philosophical standpoint.

Delaware County privatized its prison in the mid-1990s. Community Education Centers took over jail operations in 2009.

Marianne Grace, executive director of Delaware County, said there are no regrets privatizing.

“We’ve always been pleased with the decision,” Grace said. “We believe we’re saving money.”

Grace estimated Delaware County saves $4 million annually.

“It is worth it,” she said.

Delaware stations several county employees at its 1,883-bed prison. Grace said they have oversight over such contracts as the inmate medical provider.

She said privatization works when a county has a good relationship with the management company while maintaining control.

“We’re in charge,” Grace said.

In the mid-1980s, Buckingham Security took over management of the Butler County Prison, when it was in the former building adjacent to the government center.

The county retained the employees.

Former Sheriff Dennis Rickard said the change did not help the county save money.

“It was negligible,” Rickard said.

He said there were security issues using a private firm.

Under Buckingham, the inmates wore surplus military camouflage fatigues. Rickard said that meant when an inmate had to be taken to a hospital, he looked like a person who came off the street.

Another question for Rickard becomes the legal authority of a company employee in catching an escapee.

He said the county was so displeased with the situation that it assumed management of the prison after a couple years, leading to lengthy litigation.

“It took 10 years to settle the lawsuit,” Rickard said.

He said the county should not consider bringing in another company.

“Even today, privatization is wrong,” Rickard said. “It may be misleading to say there would be cost savings. Why revisit something that didn’t work before?”