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Cash-Strapped Burlington Cuts Back on Cheap Ex-Con Labor

Local Matters


corrections workers
  • corrections workers

In Burlington, former prisoners make up for their misdeeds by mowing and landscaping city cemeteries and parks, cleaning up after events at Memorial and City Hall auditoriums — even setting up voting booths on Election Day.

A chain gang it isn’t, but on any given day in Burlington, as many as 100 offenders on parole or probation may be toiling for no pay under the supervision of the Department of Corrections.

That 30-year partnership soured this year as a result of budget cuts and new contract language that ensures Burlington isn’t liable for any problems caused by offenders working on its behalf, said Mari Steinbach, the city’s director of parks and recreation. The state and city have been haggling since December, when the city signaled it was ready to pay $60,000 for offender work crews — roughly the same as in years past, according to Dave Bellini, a work crew supervisor who has negotiated those contracts for decades. The city then reduced its commitment to $45,000, and finally to $22,500.

Even without a contract, DOC staff provided Burlington with several work crews this spring to help clean up lakefront debris caused by record spring flooding. But Burlington balked when it got an $8000 bill for the work. So the state pulled the crews from the Queen City, said Bellini, and resubmitted the invoices last week.

The city does plan to pay the bills, said Steinbach, who assures a contract could be in place — and signed — this week. She said she wanted the final document to better detail the scope of work corrections crews would provide, as well as include a guaranteed minimum number of workers each day.

DOC officials argue that no matter how you add it up, $60,000 a year for six to 12 guys a day is a good deal. The offenders do not receive any compensation for their work. Missing a work crew assignment — a possible violation of probation or parole — can send an offender back to prison.

“Parks and rec misses them, as we have relied on them extensively in past years,” said Steinbach. “They are a positive presence. The citizens gain from it, as it is a great resource to save taxpayers money, and the work crews benefit from the program, too.” Steinbach said the city is also reviewing whether the contract is subject to the city’s “livable wage” ordinance, which requires contractors pay at least $16.82 an hour to its workers. Because the work crews are doing community service, Steinbach noted, they are likely exempt.

Now that the dust has settled on the budget year that began July 1, Steinbach said the city has determined it has $45,000 to spend on offender work crews. For Bellini, that may be too little, too late.

“We have other communities and state agencies who are asking us for work, but we held out signing deals with those folks because we expected that Burlington could come through,” said Bellini, who also contracts with the Agency of Transportation, the Fish & Wildlife Department, and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. The DOC’s Community Restitution Program currently has 187 contracts that as of May 31, had brought in $420,675 for the DOC. In FY 2010 work-crew contracts generated  $479,408, down from $508,483 in FY 2009.

Bellini warns, “We’d like to continue working with Burlington, but taking more than six months to renew a contract is giving me second thoughts about how many crews I’ll set aside for them next year.”

For now, the parks department is using two full-time workers to keep up with basic lawn care and landscaping needs.

“We’ve done the best we could with the resources we have at our disposal,” said Bill Rasch, a parks employee and vice president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that represents some city workers. “We’ve been playing catch-up the best we can, which is hard even on a good day. It was a tough spring, and not having the work crews isn’t helping, that’s for sure.”