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SALT LAKE CITY — As the new Utah State Prison takes shape, apparently the jobs to fill it are still under construction.
"We could have a brand-new facility that opens, and not enough staff to operate it and have it fully open," said Chad Bennion.
Bennion is the executive director of the Utah Corrections Lodge Fraternal Order of Police 14. He's been closely watching budget discussions over the course of the legislative session, which have included how much money to put toward wages at the Department of Corrections.
Hundreds of jobs were riding on these discussions, Bennion indicated.
The Department of Corrections has had huge problems recruiting and retaining prison guards and adult probation and parole agents, he explained. They currently have nearly 200 open jobs with no one to fill them.
Bennion added that many employees are leaving for local police agencies offering higher salaries.
The staffing shortage means current officers carry an even heavier burden.
"We have mandatory overtime where officers are putting in 64 hours overtime, on top of their 86 hours per pay period," Bennion said.
They've had to lower the standards for hiring, he expressed, from asking for five years of experience to become an adult probation and parole agent to one or one and a half years of experience.
He was hoping the state Legislature would remedy that with $35 million to raise wages and keep salaries competitive with police departments.
But Gov. Spencer Cox, Bennion said, requested under half that instead, slashing that number to $15.2 million.
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who chairs the Executive Appropriations Committee, acknowledged being well aware of the DOC staffing and salary issues.
"All of the local communities are bidding officers away from the state," he said, in an interview after Thursday's hearing. "And if we don't stay in-market, we bid our officers away. We train and they bid."
While he said they are trying to get the drastically underpaid positions up to market, Stevenson also talked about balancing an increase in funding for the DOC with everything else on the budget list.
"We have to be careful. We have to be very methodical in the way we go about the increases," he said.
The Executive Appropriations Committee Thursday settled upon $20.2 million, with Stevenson in the last moments of the hearing requesting to add $5 million to that $15.2 million. He explained that he felt the governor's budget was insufficient for the corrections department, and the new number makes it possible for the agency to raise wages on a "discretionary basis."
The corrections department will get a larger piece of the budget percentage-wise, Stevenson said, than other state employees.
"I think this is a great step in the right direction," he concluded. "I haven't analyzed the different positions — we don't get into that — but I do believe that this isn't the last time we're going to deal with this. I think compensation will be a subject of our next session also."
Bennion expressed being grateful for the $20.2 million and appreciative of that last-second $5 million add-on.
But for him, there's still work to do, and it's not enough to get where they need to be on hiring and retention.
They still have to hire over 200 officers for the new prison, he indicated, on top of the nearly 200 they're already short.
"If we don't have that good base of personnel, we aren't going to have a good foundation for the correctional system," he said, adding, "Regardless of how new our facilities are, or anything else."