New Castle News

January 17, 2013

Inmate exodus triggers jail budget dilemma

Debbie Wachter
CNHI

NEW CASTLE — The withdrawal of state inmates from the Lawrence County jail could poke a hole in the jail budget.

The county has prepared for some of that shortfall by putting more money into the contingency fund, according to Controller David Gettings. The question is whether it will be enough.

For the past couple of years, the county has been housing about 50 state inmates and collecting $50 per inmate per day.

But the exodus has caught the county by surprise, coming sooner than anticipated, and Gettings is hoping a new program of counties housing probation violators will fill the funding gaps.

Warden Brian Covert explained to the county prison board Wednesday that the state already is taking back its inmates.

State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced Jan. 9 that state prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties would close by June 30 and a new prison with more space is opening in Centre County.

Last year, Lawrence County housed 50 to 55 state inmates, but now is down to 20, Covert said. He told the prison board he expects those to be gone during this calendar year.

Covert said that if the state houses parole violators here, the number the county will get, how much it will be paid and when that will happen are all unanswered questions.

“We are signed up for it with the state.” He added the state had proposed that because of the number of returnees, so the county jail numbers will be up again.

Several counties are interested in taking the probation violators, Covert said.

Gettings said he and the commissioners had heard of the forthcoming changes during budget time, and e county officials increased the contingency fund.

“We knew this might be an issue,” he said. “We put money in to make sure, and we hope it’s going to be enough.”

Last year, the contingency fund contained $285,454. For 2013, the county budgeted $700,000.

That $415,000 difference about half of what the county was projected to receive by housing 50 to 55 inmates. The amount anticipated for 2013 from state inmates was $800,000.

Gettings said no one expected the state inmates to be moved out so soon.

“We were told this was going to go on for most of 2013 and if it didn’t, it would be evened out by us getting some of the parolees,” he said. “We didn’t get the numbers on that because we didn’t think it was happening that quickly.”

The two prisons were announced after the budget was adopted.

“We were told we’d be one of the last ones to have prisoners taken away,” Gettings said. “Then all of a sudden, boom, here it comes.”

The county hopes to get 20 and 50 inmates in the parole program, he said, “but we don’t have anything in writing.”

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)