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Florida Imposes Broad Budget Cuts, but Prison Officials Increase Pay Through Double-Dipping

Florida Imposes Broad Budget Cuts, but Prison Officials Increase Pay Through Double-Dipping

by David M. Reutter

While the State of Florida has to contend with across-the-board budget cuts due to a financial shortfall caused by the faltering economy, high-ranking Florida Department of Correction (FDOC) officials are padding their pockets by drawing state retirement checks as well as bi-weekly paychecks.

The recent economic downturn has resulted in budgetary problems for Florida, which is primarily dependent on tourism to fill its coffers. Since the state has no personal income tax, it relies on sales tax proceeds to fund government operations. The decline in tax receipts resulted in a 10% reduction in all state agency budgets; Governor Charlie Crist vetoed a record $459 million from the state budget in May 2007.

For the FDOC that meant staff cuts. During the 2007 legislative session, prison officials scared the public into believing that proposed FDOC budget cuts would mean eliminating 1,800 guard positions, closing prisons and releasing prisoners early. That successful scare tactic resulted in less severe cuts and a reduction of only 331 positions. The FDOC planned to cut 199 probation officers and 132 administrative jobs, including a number of prison chaplains. No guards lost their jobs.

Meanwhile, more than 200 FDOC employees who retired and were then rehired by the department draw annual salaries while also receiving state retirement checks. For fiscal year 2006-07, those employees received $11.6 million in salaries and over $4 million in retirement pay. This “double dipping” does not sit well with many rank and file prison staff.

The majority of the double dippers are upper-echelon FDOC employees, including George Sapp, Assistant Secretary of Institutions; Ralph Kiessig, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Administration; the Deputy of the FDOC’s Inspector General’s office; six wardens; and several senior physicians and health service officials.

At least 14 of the double dippers receive more than $90,000 a year in salary plus an average of $43,000 in annual retirement benefits. Many returned to the same job positions they left when they retired. In addition to maintaining their status and retirement payments, they continue to receive free health and life insurance. Plus, they are allowed to live in bargain-rate state-owned housing.

Rather than fill the positions of retiring officials by promoting other employees, FDOC stated it could not afford to lose the expertise of the retirees. “I tried to identify good strong leaders that I felt had good ethical code and were using their experience well,” said former FDOC Secretary James R. McDonough, who took over the department after his predecessor, James V. Crosby, Jr., was indicted on federal charges for accepting kickbacks from private vendors.

To be fair, when he arrived McDonough was facing a system that was corrupt from the top down. [See: PLN, December 2006, pg 1]. Nearly half of FDOC’s 12,292 guards have less than five year’s experience. Many are sons or daughters of current or former FDOC employees, and this nepotism is compounded because many prison staff marry other staff members within the FDOC.

Yet guards have argued that the double dipping by high-ranking prison officials feeds “the good ole boy system” that has pervaded FDOC since its beginning. “Shifts are running short and at critical levels, while top administrators are being taken care of with them receiving both a salary and retire[ment] check,” FDOC guards wrote in an unsigned letter to the St. Petersburg Times. “The Department of Corrections needs to save money the safe way, not the be good to your buddy way.”

Apparently, however, when high-ranking prison officials are so used to feeding at the public trough, it’s hard for them to stop simply because they retire.

Sources: The Florida Times Union, St. Petersburg Times

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