Union leader says governor was caught off guard on prison

CARSON CITY -- Gov. Brian Sandoval should have stopped the Department of Corrections from running up a $2.5 million deficit and moving to close the Nevada State Prison three months ahead of a legislative requirement, a union leader said Tuesday.

Vishnu Subramaniam, chief of staff for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 4041, said it is apparent that Sandoval was caught off guard until a Monday meeting where it was reported that the Corrections Department incurred $2.5 million in unbudgeted overtime in the July-through-September quarter.

He also said Sandoval had no idea that Corrections Director Greg Cox was moving to close the 144-year-old prison on Jan. 9 despite a legislative directive to close it April 1.

"I would like to know why the governor didn't pay more attention to this," he said. "How could he not know the Nevada State Prison was closing three months ahead of time? How could he not know they were running up the overtime? Cox is his administrator. I wonder why there is no communication between the governor and his administrator."

But Dale Erquiaga, Sandoval's policy director, said Tuesday that the governor was aware in advance of the overtime problem and Cox's rationale for closing the prison earlier than scheduled.

The governor asked questions of the prison director at Monday's Board of Prison Commissioners meeting to help develop a record, help the other commissioners better understand the need for the early prison closure and create transparency, Erquiaga said.

"It's hard to see how he can be faulted for that," he said about the governor, who chairs the commission.

By closing the prison early, Sandoval wants to save "as much money as possible" and reduce additional overtime costs, Erquiaga added.

The Legislature did not provide enough funding to keep the prison open until April 1, so it should be no surprise to the employee unions that there were overtime costs, Erquiaga said.

Until the meeting, the governor did not know the exact amount of overtime, so he asked a lot of questions on that cost, he said.

From comments made by Secretary of State Ross Miller, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Sandoval at the prison commissioners meeting, it seemed none of them knew previously of the overtime and Cox's new prison closure plan.

Cox said he developed the new plan two weeks ago as a way to avoid more overtime.

The commissioners made no move Monday to stop the Jan. 9 closure.

Miller complained about not being notified earlier of the new closure plan. He said that he wanted to defer to Cox on prison management matters, but that the Jan. 9 closure was far different than the plans commissioners had been given in the past.

"Why wasn't the board provided in advance of today's meeting the revision of your plans so we could review it?" Miller asked.

After the meeting, Cox said he believed he was following the intent of the Legislature by limiting prison staff layoffs to as few as possible.

Sandoval originally proposed closing the prison on Oct. 1 of this year, but legislators delayed the closure until April 1 so that prison staff could have a better chance of finding jobs in other area prisons.

The six-month closure delay was included in the budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Sandoval.

Cox said the Corrections Department ran up $2.5 million in overtime costs in part because of the slowness in closing the Nevada State Prison and moving staff to other prisons.

He said other prisons did not have a sufficient number of correctional officers while the Nevada State Prison had more than it needed to care for its declining inmate population.

At present, the prison has 73 staff members for 140 inmates, far more than needed.

Most Nevada State Prison workers already have found jobs at other prisons, mainly in the Carson City area. Sixteen have transferred to openings more than 100 miles away at the Lovelock Correctional Center.

But 13 others have chosen not to take the transfer. They will be laid off and eligible for unemployment. Cox said they would be given jobs in Carson City as openings occur at other prisons. About five jobs open up a month through retirement and resignations.

The correctional officers' union represents some prison workers. But under state law, state employees lack collective bargaining rights.

Subramaniam said the union opposed closing the prison, the second-oldest in the West.

Sandoval proposed the closure as a way to save $15 million.

Most of the 700 inmates in the prison have been moved to other prisons, mainly the High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs, about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Some of the 73 remaining staff members will be laid off when the last inmates leave on Jan. 9, Cox said, although he does not know how many.

As time goes on, they will fill vacancies that come up at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center and conservation camps in the Carson City area, he said.

But Subramanian was not satisfied that the workers will get new jobs.

"This coming during the holidays is not going to be good for the employees," he said.

"Nevada doesn't need any more unemployment. This seems to be a poorly planned move. How much does the governor know about the day-to-day operations of state agencies?"

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.