Possible Budget Savings With Inmate and Service Workers Bungled in Largo
By Leo Coughlin
LARGO - While it is common for governments at all levels throughout the country to use labor from those serving jail sentences or those assigned to community service, such labor is available to Largo but is not used.
An examination of the subject ensued after Commissioner Curtis Holmes at a recent City Commission meeting suggested using such labor to help defray expenses in the city's very pressed budget.
What prompted Holmes's suggestion was information from Joan Byrne, director of Parks and Recreation, that a contractor was needed on a frequent basis to pick up trash on median strips.
Holmes was looking to save money and wants that contractor's cost cut by about a third. The contractor's chief mission is to cut grass.
Holmes's comment was immediately answered at that meeting by Mayor Pat Gerard who said, "We already do it."
A check with Sheriff Jim Coats confirmed this, but a look around the city showed very little evidence of prisoners from the jail or people assigned to community service and under the jurisdiction of parole and probation being used.
This led to an investigation by Mike Staffopoulos, an assistant city manager, into the use of Pinellas County jail inmates and community service assignees.
What Staffopoulos came up with appears to be a mixed bag of unorganized efforts and slipshod management of a possible resource to the city that could result in savings of tax dollars.
The report says that department directors were queried as to their use of inmates or community service workers. The responses show little effort to use such labor or very little interest, for the most part, in doing so. Apparently, as long as the tax dollars flow, all is well.
For example, Community Development, Finance, Fire Department, Human Resources, Information Technology and Library do not use do not use such labor.
The excuse given is that "This is due to the nature of the work within the department, skill set required, or the presence of children (such as the Library)."
It is hard to believe that among those assigned to community service by the court - usually for minor and non-violent offenses - would not possess the ability to use a computer, type, file, answer the phone, run errands, do clean up, etc.
The report goes on to say that departments that do utilize either or both inmates and community service assignees are Environmental Services, Police, Public Works and Recreation and Parks.
It would appear strange that such workers would not be wanted in the Library because of the presence of children but are accepted at Recreation and Parks which includes as many children, arguably, as the Library.
The reports says "It should be noted that while departments have requested personnel through these programs over the past two years, their requests, more often than not, go unfilled."
There is no indication in the report as to whether the "unfilled requests" are followed up on.
Then Staffopoulos describes in his report a brief description of how departments approach the use of the jail labor or community service workers.
Environmental Services said it "looked at this as an option" but could not get feedback from the Sheriff's Office. "We are hesitant to use inmates…due to proximity to residences…"
Of course, this overlooks the factor that those inmates released from confinement for these jobs are screened and guarded and are most often prisoners on their good behavior. No mention is made of any attempt in Environmental Services to use community service people for such jobs as painting, clean up, etc.
The Police Department said it has used "on occasion an inmate" from the jail for things like cleaning and painting. Apparently, cleaning and painting is done at the Police Department only "on occasion."
Public Works said it "has regularly asked for these workers, however, our success at actually obtaining them is less than encouraging. We do have occasional (community service workers) but getting (inmates) from the jail has not been successful."
Apparently, according to Staffopoulos's report, Recreation and Park did use such help but "that went away over a year ago."
"The inmates (for which we used to get an entire crew on a regular basis) are no longer available," the response from Parks and Recreation said. It went on to say that "We have had fairly good luck lately (in getting workers) but there are times when we get no one. We would love to have more but just can't seem to get them - it is, after all, hot, sweaty hard work."
As to community service assignees, the Parks and Recreation response said, "The workers we get are typically teens who have received community service as part of a juvenile diversion program. They will often come to the recreation centers and assist with custodial duties. Typically, they need a lot of supervision and often are no-shows or leave early."
If nothing else, the Staffopoulos report is replete with evidence and examples that any possible useful program of using inmates or community service is not organized to any degree, is not coordinated with the Sheriff's Office, is at best slip shod and hit or miss.
Obviously, what is needed is a competent city staffer to coordinate the program, dealing with the source of the labor, placing it where it is needed, scheduling, etc. Staffopoulos would likely be the ideal person for the job - little has been heard from him since he disappeared into an assistant city manager's office.
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