BRUNSWICK — The top corrections administrator at the Cumberland County Jail agreed with aggrieved corrections officers that the jail could be better staffed and front-line corrections workers deserve more pay, but he stopped short of saying that the jail is unsafe.

Maj. John Costello delivered the remarks Monday night at a meeting of the Cumberland County commissioners., where about two dozen members of Local 110 of the National Correctional Employees Union held signs and voiced their displeasure with working conditions and pay at the jail, which has been plagued by officer vacancies for months.

“I will always say COs are underpaid throughout the county, the state and the country,” Costello said. “We walk the toughest beat in the state, I agree. But the place is safe.”

The union has complained about staffing levels under which a single corrections officer is tasked with supervising up to 86 inmates in a housing unit. Half of the inmates at a time are allowed out of their cells.

But officers who spoke Monday said the issue of safety remains a prime concern.

“We don’t feel safe in the jail,” said Sgt. Donald Young. “The staffing levels are low. The morale is low. It’s not anybody’s particular fault this happened, but it’s happened. And we’re asking for you to help us. Everybody we’ve turned to does not make that decision except for you guys.”

The union is at an impasse with the county in contract negotiations. Although efforts to mediate the labor dispute are underway, the union took its grievances to the public this spring.

Since then, union members have shown up at the monthly commissioners’ meetings to deliver the same message: Low pay and stingy benefits will continue to drive away good applicants.

Union officials say that low pay and unattractive retirement packages have made it difficult to recruit and retain new corrections officers, who work with inmates who often have severe mental illness and addiction issues.

Starting pay for a corrections officer is $17.75 per hour, but the compensation package also includes stipends and incremental pay bumps for earning college degrees and for years of service.

The county also offers health insurance that covers up to 80 percent of costs for families and 100 percent of costs for individuals. Retirement benefits kick in after 25 years of service, but officers must be 65 before they can receive them or else they pay a penalty, said Dennis Welch, Local 110 president.

The discussion came as legislators in Augusta were rushing to finish a state budget. Although legislators have recommended that the state government increase funding to local jails from $12.2 million to $16 million annually, there is still no word yet whether that provision will be included in the latest version of the state spending plan under consideration, said Jim Gailey, the interim county manager.

Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who oversees the jail, said he is working with jail administrators to figure out how to plug staffing holes, but conceded that attracting new officers is difficult.

“We’ve got to do something to make the corrections officers’ job more effective,” Joyce said.

But he pushed back against the notion of safety issues, and pointed out that in 2015 at a prior contract mediation, the corrections union accepted the lower staffing level that put one officer in charge of up to 86 inmates in exchange for receiving retroactive pay increases for the time when they worked without a contract.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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