McELHATTAN - Money questions, contract questions, policy questions ... a lot of them.
Following up last month's investigation into Clinton County Correctional Facility finances, the local prison board members posed a multitude of questions to one another and the warden Wednesday.
Following the lengthy back-and-forth discussion - which at times revisited policy decisions made about two decades ago - the board approved a new policy for the Clinton County Correctional Facility (CCCF) in Wayne Township.
On the motion of commissioner and prison board member Joel Long, and seconded by prison board member and Sheriff Chuck Ankney, from hence forward all prison contracts will be approved by the prison board and reviewed by the prison board solicitor before being signed.
Former policy had Warden Tom Duran signing some contracts, occasionally with the approval of the office of county commissioners. Duran said it's clear that the former board's policies are being transitioned in a new direction.
That matter was a point of contention with President Judge J. Michael Williamson, who has frequently argued over the years that the prison board itself is responsible for the running of the jail, and holds approval rights over those finances?
The commissioners, also over the years, have frequently disagreed with that contention, saying since county government is primarily responsible for all county-level finances including the prison, the commissioners hold the purse strings along with the decision-making ability accompanying those finances.
Last month, Williamson offered an analogy - if the prison board decides to pay the warden $3 million a year, he said, the county government has no recourse but to pay the salary, or sue the prison board.
Commissioner and prison board chairman Jeff Snyder said the imaginary $3 million salary was besides the point - there's two actual figures out there that are much more important.
Last year, he said, the county committed $1.5 million in taxpayer funding toward supporting the prison, and this year, the county is looking at $1.9 million as the price tag.
Duran suggested that the county has in the past drawn from prison financial resources to place money in the general fund, when the jail was showing a surplus.
But both Duran and Snyder point to a time in the near future - some say it's already here - when the prison's money from housing out-of-county prisoners dries up.
The local prison has generated revenue by charging for the housing of out-of-county inmates for other correctional facilities.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has been a steady customer in recent years as have the Office of Homeland Security and a number of county facilities. Centre County was a loyal patron some years ago, until it built its own new prison facility.
"We've been lucky," Duran said. "Unfortunately the downward trend is the way things have gone over the years ... We can't depend on the longevity of our relationship with the Department of Corrections."
DOC is in the middle of a massive prison build that's expected to impact on the local prison's budget in the near future, and while continuing to cast for new customers, there might soon come a day when few inmates can be had.
Presently, the CCCF houses 296 inmates. Of that number, 204 inmates represent out-of-county inmates and positive revenue and 92 represent Clinton County prisoners and local expenses.
"The question in my mind is if those inmates stay throughout the year, what's the bottom line?" Judge Williamson asked. "If we only have 60 people every day (as out-of-county) inmates is that going to bring us to a zero balance?"
Given the circumstances, Snyder said, he has no recourse but to delve into prison finances and look for ways to save money, "even if it's a thousand here or a thousand there ... It all adds up."
What it appears to add up to is the end of a common if unstated policy by earlier prison boards. Or as Duran explains it, "In the history of this place, during my tenure, it's always been like you are the warden - you handle it."
Snyder's salvo yesterday again focused on several inmate-related accounts, including the Commissary Fund and Social Fund, but added contracting policy into the mix.
Last month, Snyder cited what he believed to be inappropriate purchases, saying the prison should not have spent $5,735 for embroidered shirts and bags for employees - nor should it have spent nearly $4,000 for stadium cushions, even if the occasion was something like Corrections Employee Week.
This month, he said, he uncovered another bill, this one from the social fund, in which close to $4,000 was spent on Weis Markets gift cards, which were distributed to employees.
Warden Duran said it has been both policy and custom of past boards to allow the warden to determine expenditures from that account, which is supported via commission from a vending machine company for installing soda and other vending machines accessed by the employees - and supported with no tax dollars, he emphasized.
Long and Duran commented that the system is very similar to the one used by the county government in the Garden Building, where those employee supported funds are used for employee benefits like picnics or annual Christmas celebrations. He also noted that one of those "Employee of the Quarter" awards also supported via this account went to an employee who coincidentally was a victim of assault at the prison.
Duran used the latter anecdote as an example of why it's important to support morale and achievement among prison employees.
Snyder pointed to the purchase of "thousands of dollars on T-shirts" and mentioned again the sponsorship of local charitable or nonprofit activities. Duran countered that the path that paved the way for the prison to be built was pitted with dissent and anger in the local community and since then, the prison has sought to be "a good neighbor to the community."
He also said the T-shirts, imprinted with the words "Punishment is Medicine," are sold, and are a popular item with prisoners, employees and visitors. The phrase, incidentally, is a quote from Aristotle.
Some glitches remain in a system of accounting the board set up last month, to track commissary costs and expenses, apparently. An extended discussion, led by Judge Williamson, focused on why the checks for those costs are being cut by a clerk in the Garden Building when bills are being now monitored by Acting County Treasurer Michelle Kunes.
"This isn't a perfect system," Snyder said. "People do need to be paid."
"Nothing should be paid without prison board approval," Long said. "That's what we agreed upon, and that's what we should do."
"A lot of bills from the commissary account are for services already provided," Williamson said. "If we don't pay we could be sued. Does the Warden have the authority or not to pay these? If the prison board reviews and approves, the expenses should not accrue until approval ... I don't know what this bill is for."
"We can beat our heads off the block all day on this," Long said.
"I'm also struggling a bit in how to deal with this," Snyder said. "I want to know what's happening and that's why I'm digging."
Williamson suggested that some of the expenses in the commissary account were clearly misplaced. He said the $850 cost for GED testing for prisoners was clearly a cost that should be borne by the county's general government fund. "It is a prison expense and is not a T-shirt," he said.
The board again found itself burdened with the unpleasant duty of approving commissary expenses after they've already been paid, and again affirmed the policy of approving those expenses before they are paid off.
Last month, the board also expressed some displeasure with the way its contract with Clinton County Medical Services (CMA) was being applied by that agency - especially charging the prison for vacation days, sick days and holidays - and voted to open up a wider competition for medical services to inmates when the contract runs out Jan. 1.
This month, Snyder reported that monthly bill had dropped significantly, and Duran said he was continuing to gather information toward opening up the contract for medical services to a wider competition in the new year.
The monthly bill went from a high of $33,600 in march to $28,831 in June. Snyder said if CMA bills couldn't be kept below $26,000 a month, it's likely the year would end with overspending by this account.
As for the commissary agreement (with independent contractor, Oasis Management Systems Inc. of Georgia), Snyder wondered why the warden signed the agreement and why it included the delivery of $18,720 in health equipment as part of the deal.
He flatly challenged the legality of the apparent exchange, saying, "I can't believe this is going on." Snyder questioned the company's delivery of the equipment via contract and partial "loan" as inappropriate and "possibly illegal."
But Clinton County District Attorney Michael Salisbury said "More power to him" if Duran was able to get something additional for his corrections officers in order to put pen to paper.
"I don't think it's illegal," Williamson added, "but I don't think the warden should be signing contracts."
"As long as I know the parameters, I'm fine with it," Duran replied.
Snyder had the county's solicitor review a contract with Inmate Telephone Inc., to provide a system used by the inmate population, and said there were some problems with that pact as well?
Apparently, the county's information technology staff has been called frequently to support the network integration "critical to daily operations," straining the local IT staffing constraints. Snyder said he believed some of those services should have been provided by the company in question, and said a new contract is now under review by the prison board.
Another contract, this one with Sullivan County's correctional system, was also questioned, and Snyder again recommended a thorough review of any contracts coming up for renewal.
After the meeting, Duran clarified one point in the ongoing discussion. He said the bill for Comcast services to his home was a legitimate expense. The service was separate from his personally paid television service, he said, and was provided to allow him remote access to prison programming, an access made particularly important by the fact that he's had eight surgical procedures over the past three years, and has been able to continue his supervisory duties during those difficult times.
The commissary fund amounts to about $323,000 and the social fund is in the $14,000 range. Snyder and others said those expenses should have come before the board for approval.
The issue of finances and accounts has been raised on a number of occasions over the past couple of years at prison board meetings, particularly by Judge Williamson, who objected especially to vague financial auditing reports and a formerly common practice of approving prison bills that had already been paid.
Williamson took the opportunity to again note that, according to law, it is the prison board or warden's responsible for approving prison bills, and not the county commissioners, although the commissioners are responsible for the purse strings and prison budget.
"What's past is past and what's done is done," Long said. "To bring up these matters again (regarding county vs. prison board approval) is counter-productive," Long said.