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The yard of the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. Photo by David Calvert.

An exasperated Gov. Brian Sandoval declared Nevada had a “fiscal emergency” on its hands after hearing that the Nevada Department of Corrections is $15 million over budget this year because of soaring correctional officer overtime costs.

Sandoval said the audit discussed Tuesday at the Executive Branch Audit Committee, which includes all other Nevada constitutional officers, was the worst he’d seen in his seven years as governor. Concerned that the agency would “survive” the criticism at the meeting but return to the status quo, he asked whether it was possible for an auditor to embed in the prisons agency and ensure fixes come to pass.

“This is the zero moment when the ship sinks or stays up,” Sandoval said, pointing out that the spiraling costs could wipe out a reserve fund, depriving other agencies of emergency funds or forcing him to call a special session to fix a budget hole. “Thinking, looking, reviewing — we’re beyond that. … We need action right away.”

In each of the past three years, overtime costs for the prisons department have grown 30 percent, auditors said. The prison population itself has grown by an average of just 2 percent in that time period.

Some of that can be explained by the need for supervision while an increasing number of inmates receive medical care outside the prison — hospital supervision drove 18 percent of overtime expenses last year.

But auditors pointed out some egregious cases, such as an officer at Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs who made $97,000 in overtime in fiscal year 2017, far more than the average at the facility of $7,000. Are officers calling in sick so their colleagues can pick up their shift on overtime pay, and is the friend returning the favor?

“It would be naive to think the system is not being gamed. I am positive that there is collusion going on in order to generate schedules that would result in ‘feathering one’s nest,’ as you say,” said John Borrowman, NDOC’s deputy director of support services. “But at what point in time do we implement a policy that is harmful to the collective in order to address those who are gaming the system? How do you isolate those? How do you identify those?”

Nevada prisons, which house some 14,000 inmates, constitute one of the state general fund’s biggest expenses. Of an $8 billion, two-year general fund budget, about $685 million is dedicated to the Department of Corrections.

Lawmakers are not strangers to fielding overtime funding requests from the agency, which has struggled with a chronically high vacancy rate and has warned of escalating prison medical costs. As a way to improve recruitment and retention, Gov. Brian Sandoval proposed — and lawmakers approved — a 5 percent pay raise for correctional officers.

Vacancy rates have stabilized — four of the seven major facilities have rates of 4 percent or less, which is considered healthy and normal, although Ely, Lovelock and Northern Nevada Correctional Center have rates ranging from 9 percent to 14 percent.

But the agency said the Legislature declined to approve additional medical transport positions to take inmates to doctor’s appointments and supervise them during hospital stays. Asked why, Borrowman told Sandoval that lawmakers said they didn’t want to create positions that would remain vacant. State lawmakers cut about $5.8 million out of the originally proposed budget during the 2017 legislative session.

Prison officials blame that lack of dedicated medical transport officers for forcing officers to leave their regular duties and then inducing overtime.

In one case, they said 12 women housed at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center were in the hospital at once to give birth. While the prison had budgeted for four officers to supervise inmates receiving medical care, they needed 72 officers a day in that case — two per inmate, and three shifts per day.

Asked about the two-person policy, Borrowman said the department is considering whether it can monitor hospitalized inmates with just one officer.

Sandoval was critical of agency officials who offered explanations for their current policy of allowing overtime and leave time in close proximity. The policy was nice, but “we’re not an ATM,” the governor said.

“The response I hear now is that we want a blank check. We don’t have a blank check,” he said.

Borrowman countered that he was intent on fixing the problem.

“I’m sorry if I haven’t expressed the urgency the department is taking as we do this review,” he said. “We do understand that it is our responsibility to live within our means, and we are making every effort to do so.”

Auditors offered four recommendations:

  1. Allow overtime based on time worked, not time paid: Auditors said in about 20 percent of the time sheets they examined, officers were taking overtime and leave in the same week. For example, they took Monday off but worked Tuesday through Friday, thus collecting pay for 40 hours. When they worked Saturday that week, overtime kicked in. Auditors recommend that overtime kick in only after 40 hours of bona fide work in a week — a change they say could save the state $1.4 million.
  2. Analyze the work climate and encourage more overtime volunteers: Only 7 percent of correctional officers are volunteering for overtime hours, according to the report. The rest work overtime when they’re forced to. Auditors recommended finding a strategy to broaden the base of volunteers, and suggested the current setup — in which more senior staff get desirable shifts while junior workers get worse schedules — is creating the low volunteer rate. They called for surveying the work climate to find the source of the problem.
  3. Determine staffing needs at each facility: Generally, the level of vacancies should determine how much overtime the remaining staff has to put in. But auditors found the proportion was out of whack. In the worst case, at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Facility, the vacancy rate is 2 percent but the amount of overtime logged is 610 percent of the number of “vacant hours” the prison has. On the other end of the spectrum, Lovelock Correctional Center only pays overtime for about 57 percent of the vacant hours it has. Auditors said that might be the case because Lovelock has more positions on paper than it actually needs, and those positions could be transferred to other areas of need within the department.
  4. Implement part-time or critical need officers for hospital coverage: Auditors recommended using part-time workers — such as retired peace officers — to help augment staffing without overtime or the additional costs of a full-time employee. This strategy helped Nevada’s Capitol Police force lower its overtime costs by 20 percent, and auditors estimate it could help Nevada prisons save $500,000.

    Riley Snyder contributed to this report.
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