Elections

Morris County Freeholders Need to Stop Playing Politics With Jail

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Brendan L. Keating
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At their last meeting the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders fired their latest shot in the ongoing war with Morris County Sheriff Ed Rochford. I praise my opponent John Cesaro for abstaining from this vote that appears to be more about playing politics than smart policy. The public needs more information about why the decision was made and what the Freeholders calculate they can accomplish with this move. I believe in the long term, the control of the jail will be returned to the office of the Sheriff and if elected, I will vote to do so the first chance I get. 

When one looks at the facts, this appears to be a reactionary move that aims to solve a problem while ignoring its cause. According to statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Office, the county jail has an astronomical employee turnover rate. The Sheriff’s Office claims that they lose 39% of new hires within the first two years. They attribute that statistic to below market pay and lack of modern compensation strategies retain employees like career plans, predictable pay increases, and quality benefits. All of those suggested improvements were in Sheriff Rochford’s recently proposed labor relations plan, and all have been opposed by the current Freeholder Board. This disagreement has obviously hurt the Freeholders already acrimonious relationship with the Sheriff’s Department, and left the unions feeling unheard and disrespected.

 

It is beyond frustrating that Morris County is paying to train employees that jump at their first chance to get a job at another facility where better compensation and benefits are the norm. To deal with the unnecessarily high turnover, the County Jail has turned to paying experienced officers overtime to ensure that the jail remains safe and functional. 

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During my time studying Human Resources management at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I learned all about the high cost of recruiting and training and the necessity of a clearly articulated retention strategy to ensure return on investment. The Freeholder Board’s shortsighted thinking is a clear example of why people say the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Politicians see high overtime costs and new more expensive labor contracts as unacceptable. The 7 sitting Freeholders are unlikely to be able to achieve any improvements on the current reality unless they propose a strategy almost identical to what Sheriff Rochford brought to them previously. In reality, the Freeholders are asking county employees to bear the burden of their dysfunction to mask their own poor management and administration.

By compensating employees with a market wage, providing a clear plan for career advancement, and good benefits, the jail will reduce turnover, overtime, training costs and recruitment costs. These were all things that Sheriff Rochford was attempting to accomplish when he agreed to terms on new contracts with the four unions at the jail. That same day they seized control of the jail, the Freeholders rejected every one of those contracts sending the negotiation process back to square one. To his credit, Sheriff Rochford has been running a very tight ship since his first election in 1993, and the Morris County Jail is consistently ranked in the top 1% of institutions nationally. 

The bad guy here is not working people. County employees should make a wage that allows them to take care of their families and live and work in Morris County. Prospective employees already want to work in the Morris County jail evidenced by the lack of labor complaints over the last few years. At a certain point the jail employees that we paid to recruit and train have to think with their wallets. The employees that have left have literally chosen to work in a more dangerous environment because they need to take care of their families. 

I for one would like more information. This is an ethics issue, an open government issue, and an increased risk to the taxpayers. If this is really a good thing, the people of Morris County deserve to know why. It is only fair for the public debate, if the only people who know the ins and outs of the move were present at the last 4pm Closed Freeholder Work Session, then that's a problem. It should be noted that Sheriff Rochford wasn't at that meeting either. Whatever happens, at bare minimum we need to ensure the safety of the inmates, and the integrity of the institution. 

Brendan L. Keating is a Democratic Party Candiate for Morris County Freeholder

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