New Castle News

May 16, 2013

County considering jail privatization

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Lawrence County government officials are mulling the idea of privatizing the jail.

The matter came to light when a company toured the 268-bed facility after answering a request for proposals that was sent out by the commissioners.

The 11-page letter, sent to seven prospective management companies, indicates that if the jail is privatized, the managing firm would take over running the facility Jan. 1.

No public discussion had taken place among the county officials about sending the letters out.

The letter indicates the commissioners will receive sealed proposals until May 31 and open them at their June 4 meeting.

Various criteria are detailed in the request for proposals, including preferential consideration being given to hiring current employees at the jail.

The county would require an initial three-year agreement.

County administrator James Gagliano said Wednesday two companies have responded.

“These companies operate and maintain correctional facilities throughout the United States and Pennsylvania,” Gagliano said.

The idea came about because the county is beginning its 2014 budget process, he said, noting that could be difficult with looming health care changes.

Non-management jail employees belong to Construction and General Laborers Union Local 964, and their current bargaining agreement expires Dec. 31.

The county’s general fund budget totals $29 million, Gagliano said, and $6.1 million of that is jail budget.

He said the jail is not operating at a deficit right now. “I’m merely recommending to the commissioners to look at the options.”

The request for proposals is for operating and maintaining the facility, not for the sale of the jail, he noted.

He said that should privatization occur, the jail staff no longer would be county employees.

County Controller David Gettings, who is the prison board chairman, commented, “We’re just looking at options. We’re just looking at it to see if it’s feasible.”

President Judge Dominick Motto, who sits on prison board, said his initial reaction is that “running a prison is primarily a governmental function, and my leaning is that it should be run by the body that’s responsible for it, namely Lawrence County.

“But I’m keeping an open mind about it,” he said. “My primary concern is for the safety of the community. If I would make a decision that would favor an enterprise, I’d have to be absolutely certain that public safety would not be compromised.”

Dan Vogler, commissioner chairman, said jail privatization is exploratory at this point, to see if there would be a cost savings. He said Gagliano had discussed it with some prison board members to see if there is interest in securing proposals.

“I’m open to discussing it further,” Vogler said, “but I think there are core functions for government and other functions for the private sector. I believe the housing of (inmates) is a core function of government, as it is an end result of the legal and court system. It’s the last place a defendant goes once he or she is found guilty.”