New Castle News

November 21, 2013

Board continues to study privatizing jail

Nancy Lowry
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The Lawrence County Prison Board is still mulling over privatization of the county jail.

The board voted 6-0 yesterday to pursue discussions with Community Education Centers Inc. of West Caldwell, N.J., to determine the cost of contracting services at the jail.

Lawrence County District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa was not in attendance.

The motion also authorizes the county bargaining committee — now in negotiations with jail employees in Construction and General Laborers Union Local 964 — to determine if there will be savings in bargaining or interest in arbitration.

“The board wants to make a final decision in the best interest of the taxpayers of Lawrence County,” said county commissioner Steve Craig, who proposed the motion.

Community Education Centers is a private for-profit prison company that operates correctional facilities including private prisons and halfway houses in 17 states and Bermuda. The company had submitted a privatization proposal to the county that did not contain price quotes.

Yesterday’s vote was to pursue more information. It does not obligate the county to relinquish control of the jail or to contract with the firm.

For several months the prison board has considered privatizing the jail. Earlier this year the commissioners obtained a proposal from CEC that outlines how the agency would manage the facility.

Craig, who also serves on the union negotiations committee, said he has consulted with labor attorneys and negotiations are proceeding. The jail has about 80 employees, 70 of whom are union members. Their existing contract expires on Dec. 31.

Negotiators and prison board members want to know cost figures to determine the best option to take regarding management of the jail and for 2014 budget planning.

“We’re looking for the best offers from the laborers and CEC,” he said. “We do not yet have the final numbers. We need that from the board to make an informed decision.”

Craig said he, commissioner Robert Del Signore and county administrator James Gagliano toured the jail in Columbiana County Ohio, which is managed by CEC.

“It was eye-opening to us,” Craig said. “We got a lot of information but need to know more about costs. The union needs information, too.”

Lawrence County President Judge Dominick Motto and Sheriff Perry Quahliero also said they need more information before making any decisions.

“I have expressed my reservations about going private,” Motto said. “It is an issue that needs to be fully explored and can’t be done without all the facts.”

Commissioner Dan Vogler, attending the meeting via telephone, said he believes the operation and management of a local prison should be a county function.

“Sixty-six of the 67 counties of the commonwealth operate their own prisons,” he said. Only one county — Delaware County — has a privatized jail, managed by CEC.

Delaware County has nearly six times the population of Lawrence County and a 1,000-bed jail, he said. Lawrence County’s jail has fewer than 300 beds.

Prison board chairman David Gettings, who is also county controller, said after the meeting that he agrees that more information is needed.

“This is the first step to get the information we need,” he said. “I’m concerned that if we do this, we will be only the second county in Pennsylvania to take this course. Is that the right thing to do?”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)