UNION COUNTY – The county has been negotiating a shared services deal with Hudson County that would permanently move the prisoner population lock, stock and barrel to that facility.
The move could save millions in taxpayer dollars but also could put up to 307 corrections officer jobs in jeopardy.
News that something was in the works between the two counties surfaced a few weeks ago when Tina Renna, President of the County Watchers Association, brought the matter up during the public comment portion of a Union County Freeholder board meeting. County Manager Al Faella’s response was evasive but acknowledged that something was in the works.
“Members of Hudson County and Union County have had conversations but as usual, we don’t comment on those conversations,” Faella responded.
The comment by Renna also set off alarms among Union County PBA Local 199 members and at last week’s freeholder meeting, PBA 199 Vice President James Ross and Trustee David Ottmann stepped to the podium to read a letter by their attorney James Mets of Mets Schiro & McGovern.
The letter was intended to set the record straight about who was allowed to speak on their behalf and, more importantly, on the closing of the jail.
“This letter is to emphasize that Ms. Renna does not represent in any way PBA Local 1999 and its members on this issue,” the letter said, going on to explain that the correction officers union was continuing to work to resolve the matter with the county “in a professional manner.”
The letter also left little doubt that the PBA union would not allow the loss of over 300 jobs without a fight.
“Do not let the PBA’s negotiation posture be taken as a sign of weakness. If an amicable solution cannot be reached between the PBA and the county, the PBA will take all necessary and legal steps to protect the rights of its members,” the letter went on.
Sources close to these “discussions” indicated the county has been in negotiations with Hudson County “for awhile” regarding a shared services agreement modeled after an agreement Gloucester County did last year.
While quite controversial at the time, Gloucester County moved forward to negotiate a shared services deal to house their inmates in the Cumberland County jail for $100 per day for each inmate.
This shared services effort saved Gloucester County $9.7 million in 2013 and is expected to save over $10 million by 2016, according to Gloucester County officials.
In fact, at the end of May, Gloucester County officials modified their current contract with Cumberland County, reducing the daily prisoner charge from $100 a day to $83.
Previously the cost to house one prisoner at the Gloucester County jail was $261 a day.
By comparison, Union County now pays approximately $185 each day to house each inmate incarcerated in the Union County jail.
Kenneth Burkert, PBA Local 1999 State Delegate and spokesperson for the correction officers union, admitted Monday that members were waiting for more information before taking a hard stance.
“Actually the county has not said anything to us about these negotiations but if it turns out that this is happening then we are going to fight vigorously because we believe the jail should stay because it’s a necessity,” he said.
“The towns need a place to bring their prisoners and corrections officers have been loyal to the county for many, many years,” Burkert added.
LocalSource obtained a resolution passed by the Hudson County Freeholder Board in February which outlined a shared services agreement with Union County involving the housing of inmates.
However, this agreement involved a maximum of 100 inmates, not the 700 to 800 beds required to take over Union County’s jail population. The resolution allowed for these 100 prisoners to be housed in Hudson County for $105 per prisoner, per day.
According to a source close to the negotiations, Hudson County currently has 550 beds available, but because of a recent law passed in August and signed by the governor, it is expected that jail populations will drop significantly in the coming months.
The new law sets guidelines for determining bail eligibility while allowing the creation of bail alternatives for those charged with non-violent crimes. The New Jersey Department of Corrections now has to set the criteria, which could be in effect before the end of the year. This would considerably lighten the prisoner load at the county jail considering that as many as 12 percent of inmates are there because they had no financial means to post bail.
State officials indicated that they expected the bail reform law would release 15 to 20 percent of prisoners that previously would have been incarcerated for up to a year.
In August Union County Freeholder Board Chairman Chris Hudak admitted the new law could be “a game changer,” but he did not go into details.
According to one source, should the jail population move to Hudson County, Union County’s facility would not sit unused, and instead would serve as a temporary holding facility for prisoners arrested by the municipalities.