(July 24) – The leadership of the Joint Budget Committee took issue today with Republican calls to change the way the state conducts its salary surveys, specifically salaries in the Department of Corrections.

Prompted by a July 19 letter signed by the entire Senate Republican caucus accusing the Department of Personnel and Administration of ignoring law and best practice when conducting salary surveys of the state prison system, the JBC members sent a letter today to DPA Executive Director Kathy Nesbitt, signed by the JBC chairman, Sen. Pat Steadman; the vice chairwoman, Rep. Claire Levy; and two other JBC members, Rep. Crisanta Duran and Sen. Mary Hodge.

 

The text of the letter follows:

July 24, 2013

Ms. Kathy Nesbitt

Executive Director

Department of Personnel and Administration

633 17th Street, Suite 1600

Denver, CO 80202

 

Dear Director Nesbitt:

This letter responds to a letter dated July 19, 2013, from the Senate Republican Caucus addressed to you.  In that letter, the senators indicate concerns regarding the Colorado salary survey, specifically that it “has not been conducted according to best practices, or according to statutory requirements for determination and comparisons of total compensation.”  As evidence, they cite the salaries of private corrections employees as compared to public corrections employees, and indicate a belief that the Department does not use private prisons as data points when conducting salary surveys.

The July 19 letter reflects the position of the Senate Republican Caucus. It does not represent the majority opinion of the members of the Joint Budget Committee, nor does it reflect actual problems with how the annual salary survey is conducted by the Department.  As such, it should not change the methodology of the Department in conducting its salary survey.

We understand that the Department uses a rigorous methodology that includes multiple surveys for the collection of salary data, and compares both public and private sector employees from equivalent fields of employment.  Additionally, data is adjusted based on factors such as geographic differences in wage and income levels to reflect the variances across states and regions.  It is our understanding that the Department continuously subjects its methodology to internal review and participates in the development and review of benchmark jobs included in the published surveys it uses. Prior to the 2012 salary survey, the Department contracted with a third party consulting firm, The Hay Group, which confirmed the Department’s methodology.   In short, there is no evidence to support the Senate Republicans’ position that the Department conducts its salary surveys following anything other than industry and government norms, best practices and its statutory requirements.

One of the purposes of the salary survey is to be sure our compensation package allows the state to retain qualified, trained staff to deliver the vital services and perform the functions necessary for public health, safety and welfare.  Your department has informed the Joint Budget Committee in the past that it considers the compensation of corrections officers who work for the federal government and county jails, which is who we compete with for qualified staff.  Lowering our salaries would drive our corrections officers to other higher paying public sector jobs.  Given the high rate of turnover we already experience at the Department of Corrections, it seems that would exacerbate the problem and put the safety and security of our prisons at risk.

To the Senators’ specific concerns regarding comparisons between public and private prison employees, we believe this comparison was used to advance a specific political agenda rather than address an actual public policy concern.  We do not think Colorado should base profoundly important decisions about how to safely and effectively supervise its inmate population based exclusively on salaries.

The authors of The Prison Utilization Study study cite a number of factors to account for the cost differential between privately run versus state run facilities, salary levels being only one of those factors.  They note that several of the state Level III facilities used for purposes of comparison have unique missions that private prisons are not tasked with meeting, and that state-run prisons house a more challenging offender population.  For example, the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility maintains an infirmary and houses the majority of Colorado’s elderly offender population.  La Vista Correctional Facility also has a unit for mobility impaired and infirm offenders.  As the authors write:

“Both these facilities have high clinical costs that result in substantially higher per diem cost.  Taking these two facilities out of the comparison lowers the average per diem cost of Level III state facilities to $62.70, reducing the cost disparity from 36 percent to 15 percent.” (Becker et al., page 34).

Importantly, in their comparison of private versus state run facilities, the authors also indicate differences between custody level (private prisons are only equipped to house medium security and lower offenders) and staffing levels at private prisons, which are “well below the levels found at state correctional institutions.”

Public safety is a core mission of state government.  Prisons perform a complex and vital function and must have competent, professional and committed staff to operate safely and well.  A “race to the bottom” on corrections employee salaries would certainly diminish the safety of our prisons, increase recidivism, and potentially put workers and Coloradans at risk.  We are troubled by the discrepancy between salaries at state run and private facilities that the Senate Republicans helpfully point to, as well as the significant differences in staffing levels between the two types of institutions.  We think that reflects a problem in the private, for profit prison industry.

We are interested in ensuring that the private prisons corporations with which the state contracts are meeting the same stated goal we have set for the state’s personnel system of providing total compensation that ensures the “recruitment, motivation and retention of a qualified and competent workforce.”   We hope you will work with us to ensure that goal is being achieved.

Sincerely,

Senator Pat Steadman, Chair, Joint Budget Committee

Representative Claire Levy, Vice-chair, Joint Budget Committee

Senator Mary Hodge, Member, Joint Budget Committee

Representative Crisanta Duran, Member, Joint Budget Committee

 

CC:         Members of the Joint Budget Committee

The Honorable John Morse, Senate President

The Honorable Mark Ferrandino, Speaker of the House

The Honorable Morgan Carroll, Senate Majority Leader

The Honorable Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, House Majority Leader

The Honorable Brian DelGrosso, House Minority Leader

The Honorable Bill Cadman, Senate Minority Leader

Mr. John Ziegler, Staff Director, Joint Budget Committee

Mr. Henry Sobanet, Director, OSPB

Ms. Tracee Bentley, Legislative Director, Office of Governor John Hickenlooper

Ms. Diane Ray, Colorado State Auditor

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