- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland’s corrections and public safety department is under financial strain because of cost-saving measures aimed at addressing the state’s budget deficit, and lawmakers are questioning how well the department will be able to operate under the constraints.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is underfunded in the budget of Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, by about $55.8 million based on current operations. It’s underfunded by about $77 million for optimal staffing conditions.

The budget proposal requires the agency to cut 400 vacant positions out of 837 in the department, which will have about 11,250 regular positions, the lowest number since 2005.

Delegate Galen Clagett, a Frederick County Democrat who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees spending in the department, described the agency’s budget as “a shell game with no pea.”

“The really serious answer to this is having enough staff properly trained and a good system to keep people on line,” Mr. Clagett said.

Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard said the budget was put together with new 12-hour shifts for correctional officers in mind, but union opposition has put the longer shifts aimed at increasing efficiency in doubt.

“Initially, our budget was planned upon getting a 12-hour-shift consideration by the union, but it looks like that may not be possible, so the amount that we put in there, we’ve got to make that up somewhere else,” Mr. Maynard said.

Department officials concede that won’t be easy.

The federal recovery act signed this week by President Obama that is steering about $3.8 billion in aid to Maryland is largely tailored for specific needs, such as education, health care and transportation.

“These funds will not be available to this department based on our reading of the bill,” said G. Lawrence Franklin, a deputy secretary for the department.

Mr. Franklin said the department could still benefit from grant funding under the federal stimulus bill and by partnering with other state agencies that will receive direct aid. But it remains unclear how much that could help the department.

He also told a subcommittee Thursday that about half of the 837 vacant jobs in the department are correctional officers, a fact that will require careful consideration when deciding on the 400 vacant posts that will be eliminated. The Division of Corrections is the largest agency in the department.

Sue Esty, assistant director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, told lawmakers the state is down about 97 correctional officers in the first six months of the current fiscal year, compared with the previous year. She said extending the current eight-hour shifts to 12 would put a huge burden on correctional officers, who have to be highly alert at all times.

Delegate Gail Bates, a Howard Republican who is a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on public safety and corrections, said she was concerned about reducing vacant positions at the same time the state is reducing money for incentives to attract workers. Correctional officer jobs have notoriously high turnover rates.

“It looks to me like we’re forcing ourselves into a much deeper problem next year,” Ms. Bates said.

T. Eloise Foster, Mr. O’Malley’s budget secretary, said Friday the administration recognizes budget problems in public safety, juvenile services, human resources and the state police and plans to work on them.

“We’ll look at those agencies budgets and we will try to provide them relief in fiscal year 2010 as well as in fiscal year 2011, so we’re cognizant of the problem,” Mrs. Foster said at a news conference on federal stimulus money relating to education. “We’re going to go back. We’re going to make adjustments accordingly.”

Mr. Clagett said he was especially sensitive to prison security, because he worked as a teacher for the department during the 1968 riots.

“I’m not saying we’re going to have [riots], but they’re not a very pleasant thing to experience, and custody or security is a major, major issue. So we need to infill and get people in the job to take care of the security part of the operation,” he said.

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