CLEVLEAND — A proposal to cut the number of jailers in Cuyahoga County's next budget is raising concerns about the impact it could have on safety behind bars.
Following the damning 2018 US Marshal's report which called conditions inside Cuyahoga County jail "inhumane" and cited understaffing as a reason for some of the problems, Cuyahoga County leaders increased the number of corrections officers in the budget to 725 officers.
But nearly three years after that report and a string of eight inmate deaths in six months, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish introduced a new biennial budget for 650 corrections officers.
Budish, and budget administrators said the number more accurately reflects the actual staffing inside the jail which, according to a union representative, has fallen to 552 officers.
"We don't want to set aside money for a year that most likely won't be spent," said Budish. "That doesn't work, especially in a tight budget."
Instead, Budish told county council members that if the jail needs more people, the sheriff's department can request additional staffing from the council.
Budish said budgeting based on the actual number and not vacancies would increase transparency and accountability.
"Why lock-up money in the budget for people that we don't ever expect to able to hire in the next two years?" Budish asked. "But we're not taking the positions away."
But the union representing Cuyahoga County's corrections officers said it was blindsided by the proposal.
"In order to operate that jail you need no less than 698 officers," said Adam Chaloupka with Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association. "Otherwise you can't account for people calling off sick or account for people going on vacation. Anything else is way too thin of margins."
Chaloupka believes that any plan that requires waiting for county approval to hire more jailers doesn't make sense.
He worries the plan would slow the hiring of much-needed officers at a time when the jail is already understaffed.
"It was a total about-face and we're just confused, flabbergasted and shocked," said Chaloupka.
The chairman of the council's Public Safety and Justice Affairs Committee called the plan smoke-and-mirrors.
"We're in essence under-budgeting in the most delicate place in Cuyahoga County possible," said Councilman Michael Gallagher. "The world is watching what we do at the jail and we're saying 550 is okay, we can come back to 650, but the council has already said 725 is the number and agreed to by the Executive."
Chaloupka believes the county has seen what can happen when the jail continues to operate short-staffed.
Now, he fears if the current budget plan becomes reality, history could repeat itself.
"This happens within weeks of a trial that revolved around an attempt by an individual to understaff the jail to save money," said Chaloupka, referring to former jail director Ken Mills, who was convicted of dereliction of duty charges in September. "I just can’t believe this is what they do a week after that individual is sentenced."
The county council is expected to hold hearings to discuss the proposed budget during the next several weeks.
The two-year, billion-dollar budget needs to be approved by the end of the year.