Otsego County’s jail is dangerously understaffed, Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. told county officials during an Administration Committee meeting Thursday, Aug. 20.
Devlin had asked the committee of the Board of Representatives to fill four positions, including a chronically hard-to-fill jail nurse position. The positions had been approved by the county’s Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee on Thursday, Aug. 13, but only two were approved by the Administration Committee — the nurse position and a soon-to-be vacant corrections officer position.
The two new hires will still have to be approved by the county’s full Board of Representatives at its meeting Wednesday, Sept. 2.
The other two corrections officer positions had been vacant since 2019 and were not refilled last year while the county’s jail went through renovations following a Halloween storm that caused water damage and closed the jail for repairs. The jail reopened just before the coronavirus pandemic began, and soon after, the county was scrambling to bridge a massive budget gap.
“I’d like the minutes to reflect that the sheriff has advised the county that your failure to provide appropriate staffing levels to properly operate the correctional facility jeopardizes the safety and security of the facility, our correction officers and our inmates,” Devlin said. “I’ll bring this up again at Public Safety.”
The pandemic has left the county’s finances damaged, with a projected loss of revenue for 2020 estimated to be at least $12 million. In response, the county laid off about 60 workers in June and instituted a hiring freeze, a spending freeze and a rollback of several major construction projects, among other cuts.
However, some positions have been filled or will be, despite the hiring freeze. During the same meeting Thursday, the committee members approved bringing highway department workers back in November, or sooner if needed, for ice and snow removal, and also for a temporary clerk-typist for the mental health department.
To bypass the hiring freeze, a position needs to be newly vacant, considered to be filling a vital service or funded by state or federal money or by an equal reduction in a department’s budget. In addition, hiring has to be approved by the county treasurer, the department’s parent committee, the Administration Committee and the full Board of Representatives.
Devlin said he thinks his positions are vital, too. He told the committee his corrections staff is down 20% from recent years and overtime pay has skyrocketed.
“We are averaging approximately 600 to 800 hours of overtime monthly,” he said. “Last month we had 1,000 hours of overtime.
“My officers are tired,” he continued. “Tired officers make mistakes, they take shortcuts and they’re less productive. This is an accident waiting to happen. I can’t operate this way.”
Devlin said 60% of the overtime hours are for “operational issues,” but the state Commission on Corrections has issued a verbal statement telling him that Otsego County’s jail is properly staffed. That information was not available to Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee members last week, which was part of the reason the two corrections officer positions were referred back to the committee.
County officials also told Devlin they would like to see a cost analysis, comparing what the overtime hours cost him versus the cost of salaries and benefits for two more full-time officers.
Devlin said he disagrees with the state’s opinion, saying it was based on a 15-year-old survey. He said he has been requesting a new staffing survey for about five years.
County officials said they were in a bad position financially, with the 2021 budget season starting while the 2020 budget is still in limbo, waiting on late summer and fall tax revenue figures and for a final decision about how much aid the state will cut from counties this year. In addition, the New York State Association of Counties has projected Otsego County will lose between $2.6 million and $8.3 million in revenue in 2021.
“Nothing has gotten better since we started the hiring freeze,” said Board Vice Chair Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, Milford, New Lisbon, who also chairs the Administration Committee.
“It’s tough for me,” said Rep. Keith McCarty, R-Richfield, Springfield, “because I don’t want to see more layoffs.”