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Iowa corrections head says more money needed this year to staff prisons

Rod Boshart, C.R. Gazette –

The head of Iowa’s corrections system projects his agency will need up to $8 million to keep the state’s prisons fully staffed through the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

“Our goal is to employ as many staff as our budget allows,” John Baldwin, director of the state Department of Corrections, told legislators this week. However, he acknowledged his agency’s current general-fund appropriation will not fully fund the 2,698 prison staff and 1,113 employees within the community-based corrections system through the fiscal year’s remaining six months.

“We have retained staff that we don’t have money for,” he told members of the Legislature’s Fiscal Committee. “We’re clearly in need of support this year. We’re looking at savings and we’re cutting down as much as we can.”

Baldwin said his agency is attempting to shave overtime costs by more than half this fiscal year – from $5.9 million in fiscal 2011 to a projected $2.55 million in fiscal 2012 – as a way to address a nearly $14.5 million shortfall in salary costs. However, he expects his department will need a supplemental appropriation between $7 million and $8 million yet this fiscal year to maintain the staff needed to supervise a prison population that stood at 8,548 on Friday and a CBC population of more than 30,500 offenders.

Gov. Terry Branstad said he is aware of the issue and he expected to have a better sense of the budget situation in early January once he and his staff analyze the numbers and prepare the budget plan he will present to lawmakers on Jan. 10.

“We will look at their situation,” the governor said in an interview. “I don’t like to do supplementals unless they’re absolutely necessary. We don’t want to jeopardize public safety, so we want to be real careful about that. But they’ve also had to eat the salary increases that the previous administration accepted without any negotiations.”

Pay increases approved by the Culver administration have swallowed up money without leaving any to increase prison staff, Branstad aides have argued.

The collective bargaining agreements that included phased wage increases of at least 3 percent for the current and 2013 fiscal years requires a salary adjustment of more than $16.7 million this year even after the corrections agency had 325 employees take early retirement and only 126 positions were refilled. Last year Baldwin’s department received about $22 million in supplemental funding to function.

Unionized state workers have held rallies outside correctional facilities this year complaining that state corrections officials are ignoring a legislative directive to add more prison staff that is making state prisons increasingly dangerous places to work.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the projected deficit to maintain the staff needed to keep state prisons safe is “800-pound gorilla” facing budget-makers as they prepare for the 2012 session that begins Jan. 9.

“I know something has to happen when we get back into session. I’m kind of amazed that we’re just dancing around this,” he said. “We’d better figure something out. I don’t know what form it will be. I’m just trying to keep all the options open. To me the best would be a supplemental.”

Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Iowans have identified public safety as a priority need so lawmakers will “take a very serious look at any recommendations that are made and if there is additional needs. The first place we’ll look is to the existing budget that we have. Out the $6 billion that we’re spending, is there money that’s still in that budget that can be transferred or moved over to meet the needs that he has articulated.”

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