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Budget Corrections

Governor Proposes Raises For Correctional Officers, But Union Leaders Say More Guards Are Needed, Too

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 1/25/2006

Gov. Robert Ehrlich promised Maryland’s correctional officers a more than $5,000 raise last week as part of his proposed $29.6 billion state budget.

If the budget passes without changes, Maryland will spend “$48 million to recruit and train a correctional-officer work force,” Ehrlich said at a budget unveiling. “We need to make this field of law enforcement more attractive, and through this budget we will do so.”

Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar fished in a briefcase for the relevant figures. Starting annual pay for state correctional officers will increase from $28,126 to $33,413 under the proposed budget, she said. Plus, all correctional officers now on the force will receive a “one grade increase” in their pay, a 2 percent cost of living increase, and an additional increase.

The average raise will be 10 percent, according to figures supplied by Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli. In addition, every one of the state’s 5,662 correctional officers will get a $500 “retention bonus” if they have fewer than five unscheduled sick days.

The reason for the increase, as Saar and others have said before, is that other jurisdictions—including some Maryland counties—pay their prison guards more than the state does.

“Around D.C. is always higher,” she says. “In the south, ECI [Eastern Correctional Institution], prerelease, the competition now is out of Delaware. They raised salaries considerably.

“We just were not competitive,” Saar concludes. “The economy is in such great shape, these people have opportunities for jobs that are not so difficult.”

Ron Bailey, executive director of Council 92, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union, which represents some of the corrections officers, says he’s happy for the raise. But, Bailey says, the state needs more correctional officers, too.

“What I heard from a lot of people is they hire people, they walk in the door, they see what they’re confronted with, and in a matter of weeks they’re out the door,” Bailey says. “They want to know, ‘Am I ever gonna get a day off? Am I gonna have a life?’”

Vernarelli says the state currently has budgeted 6,192 positions for correctional officers and their sergeants. But only 5,662 positions are currently filled. Those 530 vacancies—more than 8 percent of the force—are causing the staffing shortages, Vernarelli suggests.

“The governor’s plan is not adding ‘new’ positions; it’s expected to be a huge help in filling our vacant positions,” Vernarelli explains in an e-mail. “Our biggest challenge to staffing is retention: We just can’t keep enough good people because so many train with us, work a while, and leave for better pay.”

Bailey says the state needs 60 to 100 new positions over the current budgeted strength. “That would just be something so they could start to survive,” he says. “People tell me they can’t get vacations. People tell me they can never get [days off on] weekends. Some people say people try to persuade them to change medical appointments, and it’s all because of staffing shortages.”

The state legislature can only cut from the governor’s budget, not add to it, but Bailey says he intends to keep telling legislators that the state needs more correctional officers.

“What we’re going to do is continue to pressure and pursue the legislators to make sure they understand that staffing correctional facilities . . . plays a major roll in maintaining safety on our streets,” he says.

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