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Retroactive pay raises cut in committee

March 08, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee voted 7-6 Tuesday to cut funding for retroactive pay increases for correctional officers in the state's prisons.

The full Senate and the House of Delegates would also have to vote to delete the funds before the cut is final.

The $15.5 million earmarked by Gov. Robert Ehrlich for the pay increases was requested as a deficiency budget for the current fiscal year in order to boost correctional officers' salaries before the new fiscal year begins July 1. Proposed increases for correctional officers, averaging about 6 percent, would still be effective at that time. The committee's action would only affect the retroactive pay to Jan. 1.

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Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset/Wicomoco/Worcester, reiterated to the committee that the Division of Correction "is having a serious problem with morale and recruitment." Noting that one of the state's largest facilities, Eastern Correctional Facility is in his district, Stoltzfus said the problem "is so severe that we have 18-year-old girls as correctional officers."

Sen. James E. DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, said Public Safety and Correctional Services Sec. Mary Ann Saar could not recall if retroactive increases had ever been given.

"There have been a lot of vacancies; this isn't something new," DeGrange said. "The retroactive pay increase would not do anything for the recruitment process," he said, because by the time new recruits were screened, trained and on the job, the new fiscal year would begin and the higher salaries would be in place anyway.

Other law enforcement agencies were having similar problems, he said, and the low salaries of correctional officers - averaging about $36,800 - should have been addressed last year or the year before.

By offering retroactive pay hikes for just one department, he said, the state would "open up a can of worms."

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, noted that the Division of Correction "has 600 vacancies today. These correctional officers have to put in a huge amount of overtime" to make up for staffing shortages and "are becoming discouraged."

Committee Vice Chairman Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery, maintained that "it is the will of this committee to support the pay increase," which he noted would add up to more than 8 percent this summer when the 2 percent projected cost of living adjustment is added.

Stoltzfus insisted that approving the retroactive pay would improve morale among correctional officers already on the job.

"They've seen an increase in gang violence and a decrease in personnel" in the prisons, he said, adding that when he had spoken to Ehrlich about the problems, "the governor wanted an action plan to fix this thing."

"If you don't give them this, they will bad-mouth the state," he said. The prisons are "a bad place to work from their perspective," he added, noting that correctional officers are retiring as soon as they can.

Committee Chairman Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's, said that correctional officers' morale problems began with the realignment of positions to begin Project RESTART, a rehabilitation program for prisoners.

"Whether money will change the morale problem around, I don't know," Currie said, "but as you know, and as Sen. Munson knows, that's when the morale problem started."

Salaries could have been discussed for the fiscal 2006 or 2005 budgets, he said, "but there was not this discussion."

Munson noted that the increase would raise the starting salary for correctional officers from $28,100 to $33,400.

"That would be an encouragement for them to take the job," Munson said.

"Now's when we have the problem," Stoltzfus added.

The House Appropriations Committee must also vote on whether to approve the retroactive increase, then both the full House and Senate must vote.

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