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Prison Guards' Pact Criticized by State Auditor


SACRAMENTO — The lucrative new labor pact Gov. Gray Davis signed with the state prison guards union will cost California more than half a billion dollars annually when it takes full effect, according to a critical audit released Tuesday.

The report by state auditor Elaine Howle also said the Department of Corrections' failure to attract and retain employees leads to massive spending on overtime, contributing to its frequent budget deficits. In another finding, the audit confirmed that changes in the guards' sick leave policy under the new agreement have produced a 20% jump in sick days since the contract was ratified in December. That further inflates overtime costs as guards are called in to cover for ailing colleagues.

The audit represents the first independent review of the labor pact between the state and its correctional officers union, a contract that has been attacked as a sweetheart deal by lawmakers. Nearly 400 pages long, the contract grants the state's 20,000 prison guards pay parity with the California Highway Patrol and five other large law enforcement agencies. By 2006, guard salaries will increase 37%.

Critics note that the guards, members of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., are one of the governor's largest campaign contributors. The union donated $251,000 to Davis in March, two months after he signed the labor deal, and has donated to his campaigns in years past.

"This audit validates the extraordinary costs that the taxpayers are going to incur because of this contract," said state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who has sparred with the union in the past. "I have concerns about the state being such a generous employer in these hard economic times."

But several members of the Davis administration, joining in a conference call with reporters, defended the contract Tuesday and called the 45-page audit misleading.

While acknowledging that the audit provides an accurate summary of problems besetting the Corrections Department, they said it fails to identify ways in which the new labor pact will reduce overtime and thereby ease the department's fiscal woes.

Already, the increased pay, improved retirement benefits and other enticements in the new contract are helping the department compete for applicants with other law enforcement agencies, said Edward Alameida, department director.

The stepped-up recruiting, he said, should allow the department to reach full staffing strength by 2004, rather than the more distant date of 2009 that the audit forecasts. As rookies swell the guard ranks, the department's most senior, highest-paid officers will leave in greater numbers because of another perk in the contract--an ability to retire at age 50 and receive as much as 90% of their salary.

"The people who replace those folks will be at the entry-level pay scale, so you're saving money there," said Inspector General Steve White, who reviewed the audit. "None of that was in the calculus provided by the [auditor]."

With 33 prisons and 157,000 inmates, the California penal system is the nation's largest, with an annual budget of $4.8 billion. Despite steady improvements in the salaries and benefits it offers, the department has struggled to recruit guards and had an attrition rate of about 6% in 2001.

In the first half of the fiscal year that ended June 30, the department spent more than $110 million on overtime, well over the budgeted amount of $74 million, the audit says. Those costs are exacerbated by a policy that allows the most highly paid officers to work the most overtime, the audit says.

Don Novey, outgoing president of the guards union, defended the contract as a fair agreement for a group of workers he says "walk the toughest beat in the state."

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