The creation of counties in the original 13 colonies came from a desire to keep the peace and pay taxes to England.
While the country has gained its independence, the business of maintaining law and order has remained the highest priority for county governments across New York state.
That’s not to say counties don’t have other responsibilities, but enforcing the law, jailing the accused and carrying out justice in the courts accounts for a tremendous amount of the county’s resources.
A review of the salaries paid by Niagara County to its employees found that $17.1 million, or 26 percent of all salaries paid, went to personnel in the Sheriff’s Department, including the county jail.
Salaries paid to all county employees who work in departments that deal with criminal matters was 33 percent of the amount of all paychecks in 2006.
But just because public safety ranks near the top of both county spending and the priorities set by County Manager Gregory Lewis, that doesn’t mean the staffing levels are where department heads or employees would like.
The county paid out the second-highest salary last year to a corrections officer who worked many hours of overtime. Robert Watson made more than all of his supervisors, including Sheriff Thomas Beilein, and was one of only two employees to gross more than $100,000.
Beilein said supervisors in the jail recognize that higher salaries among their subordinates are earned through hours and hours of overtime.
“It doesn’t come without a cost,” Beilein said.
Base salaries of corrections officers and sheriff’s deputies are largely governed by union contracts and they’re boosted by pay for briefing periods and uniform costs in addition to overtime.
Overtime at the jail wasn’t the problem it is today when the facility opened in 1997. That year, the county hired 40 corrections officers.
Over the last 10 years, the officers have earned more vacation time, leading to more holes in the schedule, which has led to mandatory overtime in some cases.
Overtime is also racked up by provisions in the officers’ contracts.
If an officer works on one of the 12 holidays they are afforded, they can earn double-time-and-a-half if they don’t take another day off during the week.
According to Human Resources Director Peter Lopes, overtime is a fact of life in the jail and is preferable to hiring more officers, a move that would require more health insurance premiums and pension payments, people to manage them and more administrative services.
“There are probably bigger issues to deal with than that,” he said.
As for limiting overtime in the jail, Beilein said officers are not allowed to work three eight-hour shifts in a row.
The state sends grants to Niagara County for various services it requires counties to provide, but that is not true in the jail, which is a state-mandated service but is 100 percent funded by county taxpayers.
The jail budget is supplemented with about $2.25 million per year in payments from the federal government for housing its inmates.
Road patrols, which are not mandated, are also funded by county taxpayers. Because the patrols aren’t required by the state, staffing levels are more flexible than they are in the jail, which operates on the rules the state hands down.
A newer mandate in the jail — one-on-one supervision for suicidal inmates — has added $100,000 to the overtime line, Beilein said.
Overtime in the jail is not unique to Niagara County.
“It’s a common challenge and it’s faced by every county and most cities,” said Mark Lavigne, communications director for the New York State Association of Counties.
Overtime may be a fact of life for corrections officers but it doesn’t come without its benefits.
Salaries for corrections officers and sheriff’s deputies near the top of the entire county workforce are not uncommon, according to E.J. McMahon of the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy.
High salaries are especially common among law enforcement and firefighters in the final years of their employment because higher salaries lead to higher pensions.
For example, the average pension payment for county police and fire retirees between ages 50 and 59 who had worked over 35 years was $107,176, according to a state comptroller’s audit of the fiscal year ending March 31, 2006.
That figure is weighted heavily by the large number of higher-paid employees in big counties on Long Island and in Westchester County. New York City is not included in that system.
Health care for employees and retirees are a burden of the county, while pension payments are paid for by a state fund that is boosted by payments from counties.
And those pension payments are not subject to payroll taxes. They also supplement Social Security benefits.
Are these pensions like anything offered in the private sector?
McMahon said, “No. Absolutely not.”
Contact reporter Jill Terreri at 282-2311, ext. 2250.
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