DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — “Misled” and “lied to” were a few of the words used Tuesday to describe how the Piscataquis County commissioners feel about the unfolding scenario regarding Gov. John Baldacci’s jail consolidation plan.
When the governor proposed changes in the prison and jail system last year to tighten spending in the wake of declining revenues, all the counties agreed to bargain in good faith, Piscataquis County Commissioner Tom Lizotte said Tuesday. “Now they all feel like they’re being stiffed and that’s because they are,” he said.
Lizotte was referring to the latest information in which the Piscataquis County Jail was identified by the Department of Corrections as a Tier Three jail, which likely excludes it from receiving any of a $1.5 million General Fund appropriation for jail consolidation. Piscataquis County had asked for $114,922 from that appropria-tion to help offset the 2008-2009 jail budget, he said.
The Board of Corrections is considering the distribution of $1.5 million as follows: $1.2 million to Tier One jails such as the Two Bridges, Cumberland, Kennebec and Penobscot jails, $100,000 to Tier Two jails such as those in Hancock and Aroostook counties, and nothing to the Franklin, Knox, Oxford, Waldo and Piscataquis county jails, according to Lizotte.
Under a consolidation plan adopted last year by the Legislature, county jails now fall under the jurisdiction of the state. As part of that plan, Piscataquis County’s cost for the operation of the jail was capped at $878,939, and any costs above that initially were going to be covered by the state, according to Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin.
If the state does not ante up its share, Goggin said, the jail would operate for about seven or eight months. Any additional funds to finish out the year would fall back on the county budget, he said. In essence, the county would be back-funding the full operation of the approximately $1.4 million jail budget as it has over the years, resulting in none of the savings touted by the state’s proposal, he said. Unlike previous years, the revenues the county receives from the jail no longer can be used to help reduce property taxes under the new consolidation program.
At a recent meeting of the Maine county commissioners, Lizotte said it was noted that Tier Three jails were identified as “warranting further study regarding their utility to the system.” He said he translates that to mean “forget about it.” From discussions, Lizotte said he feels the state intends to convert the county jail into a 72-hour holding facility in July, a move the county can appeal.
That conversion would cost the county and the state as much money as operating a full-scale jail, according to Goggin. He said the facility will need the same amount of help, heat, medicine, utilities and food as it does now, but will have an added layer of transportation with no revenue to offset the costs. ‘Where’s the savings to the taxpayers?” he asked.
Although he said he was not advocating it, Goggin said the county would be better off if the state closed the facility and the county operated its own jail for federal prisoners. If the state balked, the six Tier Three jails could file a class-action lawsuit against the state since the counties own the facilities and it’s unlikely the state can regulate their future use, he said.
The fact a new $10 million prison is being constructed in Washington County at the same time the state is downsizing other jails was another sore point for the commissioners.
Commissioner Fred Trask, who suggested that Washington County was better organized and advocated better for itself, wondered aloud why Piscataquis County wasn’t doing the same.
Lizotte said Washington County has branded itself as the state’s neediest county, so state government cuts it some slack.
Even though Piscataquis County has the highest percentage of unemployment in the state, has the second-highest rate of child poverty, and the median income is 24 percent less than the state average, Piscataquis County has tried to be self-reliant and hasn’t looked to Augusta to solve its problems, Lizotte said.