101 LAYOFF notices IN MAIL; half of jail to be closed
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Friday was a tumultuous day for Mahoning County government, with Sheriff Randall A. Wellington announcing plans to lay off a third of his staff and close half the county jail.
At the same time, the Fraternal Order of Police obtained petitions for a recall of the county commissioners.
Because of the county’s budget shortfall, layoff notices were mailed Friday to 101 employees of the sheriff’s department, Wellington said.
Layoffs are scheduled to take effect at 7 a.m. March 28 and are to coincide with the closing of the 96-bed minimum-security misdemeanor jail as an overnight facility and the closing of about half the main jail, the sheriff said.
The layoffs and closings are necessitated by an anticipated cut announced by county Administrator George J. Tablack of between $4 million and $5.7 million below the sheriff’s $17.5 million in operating expenses in 2009, the sheriff said.
“The recession that everyone is facing should probably be called a depression, as it certainly is one around here. The county is in a financial free fall,” the sheriff said of the loss of tax revenue.
The proposed layoffs and closings can occur only with the permission of the federal court that has been overseeing jail operations as part of a three-year consent decree that settled a jail inmates’ lawsuit concerning crowding, the sheriff said.
City and county officials and the inmates’ lawyers will meet with U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster in Cleveland on Wednesday. The county will seek permission for the cutbacks at the jail.
“I am bound by a federal-court consent decree that is impossible to abide by due to a lack of funds. State law holds me accountable to not spend money that is not in my budget,” said Wellington, who will attend that conference.
“Sending out the notices is not a violation of the consent decree, but actually laying off any deputies or closing portions of the jail is a direct violation of the consent decree,” said Anthony Farris, deputy city law director, who will attend the Cleveland meeting.
“I have sympathy for the sheriff’s predicament, but the larger issue is the money that was removed from his budget. That is the cause of the problem,” Farris said.
“We are definitely going to oppose any such request” for layoffs or closings of parts of the jail, Farris said. “The reason being that there is a valid consent decree in effect. Mahoning County is bound by its terms,” Farris said. The decree expires May 17.
A full hearing must take place before the three-judge panel that approved the consent decree before any layoffs or closings of parts of the jail can be put into effect, Farris said.
Wellington “will not be approved to engage in the cuts or layoffs he is proposing,” Farris predicted.
Wellington acknowledged that the release of nonviolent inmates as the jail shrinks will increase crime, but he said he sees no alternative to the cutbacks.
“We knew they were talking layoffs. We had no idea of the depth. ... We were devastated. That’s 101 families,” said Deputy Glenn Kountz, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141, which represents deputies.
Kountz said the FOP went to the county board of elections Friday to pick up petitions to recall the three county commissioners.
“We have no confidence whatsoever in their leadership abilities anymore,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with the sheriff. The sheriff can only do what the commissioners fund him for.”
The county is operating on a temporary budget. By law, the commissioners must adopt a permanent budget by April 1.
“I don’t have any response to any of Glenn’s comments. Glenn knows just as well that the commissioners have not made any final determination on any budget numbers for any department,” said Commissioner John A. McNally IV. McNally said he’ll likely be at the Cleveland meeting.
“Given our revenue streams at the moment, many of our larger departments are going to see significant budget cuts,” McNally said.
Those receiving layoff notices include 90 deputies, four sergeants and seven civilians. The sheriff now employs 302 people. The layoffs are projected to save $4 million this year.
The misdemeanor jail will remain open as a staging area for the day-reporting inmate program.
The county’s current capacity in both jails combined is 602 inmates, and that number will drop to 254 when the cutback occurs, the sheriff said. The county now houses 459 inmates in both jails, including 40 federal inmates.
When parts of the jail close, the county no longer will have any space available for federal inmates, the sheriff said.
“The stress and uncertainty is going to be felt throughout the organization. I understand the pain this brings to our deputies and their families,” the sheriff said.
In 2008, revenue from the city and federal governments for inmates was $4.31 million. That dropped to $2.96 million last year and is projected to fall to less than $1 million this year, the sheriff said.
The city’s prisoner-boarding agreement, under which it paid the county for each of its misdemeanor prisoners beyond its 71st inmate expired Feb. 23. The city won’t renew that agreement, Mayor Jay Williams said. Farris said the city can’t afford to renew it.
The U.S. Marshals Service recently has been reducing the number of prisoners it houses in the Mahoning County jail in favor of housing more prisoners in the Cuyahoga County jail, which is closer to most of Northeast Ohio’s federal courts, the sheriff said.
The county jail receives $80 per prisoner per day for inmates sent to it from outside sources.