ELIZABETHTOWN - A request to add eight new guards at the Essex County Jail was approved by the Essex County Ways and Means committee Feb. 23.
Essex County Sheriff Henry Hommes and Undersheriff Richard Cutting met with supervisors in executive session before bringing their request to the floor.
Hommes explained that there has not been enough staff to fill in for corrections officers who take vacation or leave time, so many guards accumulate excessive hours of overtime.
According to Hommes, the original staffing analysis for the jail was done in January 2006 and called for three part-time positions to go along with several full-time corrections officers.
"Now that we're boarding more inmates, those part-time positions are turning into full-time positions," Hommes said.
According to county manager Daniel Palmer, Hommes had requested the eight additional guards while the 2009 county budget was being compiled. At that time, he rejected the request since a contract to house federal inmates through the US Marshals service had not yet been finalized.
The contract was finalized by January, however, and more than $230,000 in revenue has been collected since then from housing nearly 35 federal inmates at the jail on a daily basis. If those numbers remain steady, said Palmer, the county could expect to receive nearly $1.5 million through the contract by year's end.
According to Cutting, the 120-bed jail currently houses between 70-75 inmates total. At times, he said that number has reached 96, which is roughly equivalent to the 80 percent of operational capacity recommended by the state prison commission. The jail currently staffs 48 guards, including both deputy sheriffs and corrections officers.
Palmer said revenue from federal inmates, along with the reduction in overtime, would justify the $258,740 he estimated it would cost the county to add eight new full-time guards.
"If these additional men are able to lower that overtime cost, I think you'll start to recoup most of that $250,000 as well," said Palmer.
Supervisor Tom Scozzafava, R-Moriah, said adding more guards not only made financial sense, but would reduce the burden on existing staff.
"Some of these officers are starting to experience the burnout phase because they get home and they're right back in the jail again," Scozzafava said.
"The stress is tremendous," said Hommes in agreement. "It's really taking a toll on people."
On Feb. 6, a fight broke out at the jail involving an unspecified number of inmates. Five corrections officers were sent to the hospital for precautionary measures as a result of the incident. Cutting denied the incident having any effect on the decision to add more staff.
Cutting said the federal contract not only brought more inmates to the jail, but a more varied group of inmates, some of which are prone to self-harm or have other situations that require them to be kept in segregation.
Supervisors Roby Politi, R-North Elba, and Robert Dedrick, R-Ticonderoga, expressed concern about possibly having to lay off some guards if the contract ended or inmate numbers dropped. Hommes said it was extremely unlikely that the US Marshals service would pull out of the agreement.
"I don't predict [the inmates] dwindling," said Hommes.
The committee voted unanimously to add the eight positions, which could be added from an existing list of about 15 candidates, many of whom have already completed a physical test to be considered for hire as corrections officers.
The additional positions will need to be approved at the next full board meeting, scheduled for March 2.