In 2007, the state Department of Public Welfare issued a request for proposals to privatize operation of the state’s forensic units, including the one at Warren State Hospital.
An agreement between the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) and the department brought an end to that idea.
The main points of the agreement included identifying 15 forensic security employee (FSE) positions that could be eliminated through attrition and adjusting the wages paid to FSEs.
Those money-saving steps satisfied the state’s interest in cutting costs at the forensic units.
“The matter being resolved, the department of welfare will not accept the proposals... nor seek any further such RFP for the three years commencing February 1, 2008,” according to a copy of the memorandum of agreement.
Closing the forensic unit and consolidating operations at the unit at Torrance State Hospital in Westmoreland County is not the same as privatizing it.
“It doesn’t apply to the current situation,” DPW Director of Communications Michael Race said Wednesday. “The RFP referred to sought proposals for a possible privatization of the forensic unit. There is no current proposal to privatize the unit.”
While the exact language of the agreement does not exclude the possibility of closing one or more forensic units, according to an attorney contacted by State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-65th) the spirit of the agreement might.
“It is true there is nothing in the agreement that binds DPW or said that they could not close,” attorney Mark Singel of The Winter Group said.
The agreement was a combined effort to keep the unit out of private hands.
“We successfully beat back that effort and in exchange we agreed to work with DPW to find cost savings and we did,” Singel said. “PSCOA (Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association) worked with them, agreed to some reductions and some cost savings measures. Would we have agreed to something like this if we knew they were going to turn around and shut it?”
“For them to turn around two years later and close the unit seems to fly in the face of the spirit of that agreement,” he said. “The spirit of those discussions was, ‘let’s work together, not simply close down the whole unit on a whim.’”
“We are very concerned that this would violate their agreement,” Rapp said.
Rapp hopes that any delay, even one of only a few months, could save the unit by transferring the decision to the next governor. Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term in office concludes at the end of this year.
“We’re all looking at avenues that could at least delay until Rendell leaves office,” she said.
Rapp’s options for preventing the closure through legislative action are limited.
“We have very few legislative days left,” she said. And, even if legislation was passed quickly, the governor would have to sign it to make it law.
She is hoping to receive broad support from county commissioners and sheriff’s offices throughout the many counties served by the forensic unit and statewide.
Of the more than 40 jobs that will be lost locally if the unit is closed, more than 30 are represented by PSCOA.
“The Winter Group has had a long-standing relationship with the PSCOA,” Singel said. “We have represented the union for many years and we’re proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people we think are exceptional public servants.”
“The forensics officers are especially skilled because they have such a challenging assignment,” he said. “They have to have the usual custody and control training but also some sensitivity to the unique kinds of individuals that they have to deal with on a daily basis.”
“The commonwealth has been well served because of the quality of these forensic unit officers,” Singel said.
“We have been working very closely with Rep. Kathy Rapp who has been very vocal and very strong in pointing out that we’re talking about individuals and families with very special needs and a very specially trained workforce to address those needs,” Singel said. “It doesn’t seem like very good public policy.”
“Everybody understands the budget constraints, but to squeeze out a few dollars from a vital function like this doesn’t make any sense to us,” he said.
Rapp expects the state to fall far short of the announced savings. “If it was a real cost savings, that would be different,” she said.
Singel, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Robert Casey, said, “I recall from my days sitting in that office that it’s always hard to balance the needs of the commonwealth with the ability to pay for them. We have to guard against making cuts that have a negative impact in terms of human needs. This is one of those.”
“There have been meetings between officials at DPW with folks in the governor’s office and leaders in the legislature to make it clear that we really believe that the governor should be looking elsewhere for these types of cuts,” he said.