Politics & Government

Consultant’s study of Pierce County Jail targets overtime costs

A consultant's study says the Pierce County Jail could slash its overtime costs by adding staff and taking better control of employee vacation schedules.

The study released Thursday cited an “excessive reliance” on using overtime.

“The most significant operational issue we found was the extent of reliance on overtime to operate the Jail System,” the report said.

It proposed cutting some positions while adding others — including eight more corrections deputies — so the jail has enough workers to operate without relying on overtime.

The report said the recommended staffing changes could save the jail nearly $35,000 a year.

It also advised spreading more corrections deputies’ vacations throughout the year to reduce overtime. Currently, up to 10 percent of jail staff can be on vacation at one time. Reducing that limit would require a revision in union contracts.

The study was prompted last year by a need to cut costs and reduce daily jail rates to make them more competitive with other jail providers.

Cost overruns spiraled into a budget crisis later in 2013 when the jail’s deficit hit $5 million, resulting in the layoffs of 16 corrections deputies. Total cuts have eliminated nearly 29 full-time equivalent positions, said Sheriff’s Department Chief Brent Bomkamp.

Overtime costs have contributed to the deficit. Last year, the jail overspent its overtime budget by $602,983.

In all, the report makes 31 recommendations for jail operations and management. The Sheriff’s Department said it supports most of the changes.

County Executive Pat McCarthy also said that, generally speaking, she supports the overall plan of the study.

A panel called the jail working group will analyze the study over the next three weeks. That group is due to make its recommendations for dealing with the jail’s budget problems to the County Council by Sept. 30.

The county’s Performance Audit Committee approved the study by CGL, a consulting company based in Miami, Florida, at a cost of $109,990. The study was completed over the past five months.

The report advises a wide range of changes. They include:

Sheriff Paul Pastor said he likes most of the study’s recommendations. He said the study verifies the jail isn’t funded and staffed enough “to cover the gaps.”

“It’s a thing we’ve been saying for years,” Pastor said.

McCarthy said the study confirms the Sheriff’s Department needs to make changes to reduce overtime.

“The upshot is there are a lot of management adjustments that need to be made to make the operation more efficient, effective and safe,” McCarthy said. “By increasing some staff, you can reduce currently what we are spending on overtime.”

The report targeted the jail’s overtime costs, which have caused deficits in recent years. It recommended adding workers to offset a shortage in full-time staff, so that overtime wouldn’t usually be needed.

One aspect of the overtime problem is a lack of management control over vacation scheduling, said Karl Becker, senior vice president of CGL.

He summarized the report Thursday to the audit committee and the jail working group.

The jail’s collective bargaining agreements allow for 10 percent of the staff to be on vacation at one time. That results in as many as 25 jail staff gone simultaneously, Becker said.

“Most jail systems try to equalize vacation use throughout the year,” he said. That way, they don’t face spikes in overtime, he said.

Through Aug. 22, the county had spent $2.13 million on jail overtime — 84 percent of the overtime budget of $2.54 million allotted for 2014, according to the county’s budget and finance department.

Bomkamp, the sheriff’s chief of administrative services, said the jail projects a $2.1 million total shortfall for the year. That’s $500,000 less than what was projected earlier in the summer.

Much of this year’s county jail deficit is due to overtime pay to staff an overflow unit.

Becker stressed the need for the jail to simplify how it classifies inmates for their level of custody. Reclassifying could lead to some inmates needing less-restrictive, less-expensive custody than they get now.

Corrections Chief Karen Daniels said she is working on instituting a new classification system by the start of 2015.

County officials honed in on the overtime issue.

Deputy County Exective Kevin Phelps said he wanted assurance that adding more staff — thereby reducing gaps for vacation and sick leave — could virtually eliminate overtime.

Becker agreed it could.

McCarthy pressed for changes.

“What can we immediately put in place?” McCarthy asked.

“The big nut is the staffing and the overtime,” Becker said.