BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County elected officials are less than impressed with the results of a legislative budget panel’s review Tuesday afternoon of funding for county jails.
“It’s a mess. This whole thing is a mess,” said Tom Davis, chairman of the Penobscot County commissioners. “The state is increasing the funding for the state jails and wants to lower the funding for the county jails. … They’re going to balance the budget on the county’s back.”
Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee made no final funding decisions at the review session, at which Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story and other members of the Board of Corrections made a presentation about the cost of county corrections. But Davis and others are not hopeful that the future will bring them better tidings.
Department of Corrections Associate Commissioner Denise Lord said Monday that while county sheriffs wanted the state to pay $7 million for its share of county jail funding this year, the department’s board of directors has recommended that the state find just $3.5 million in “new money” for the system.
The shortfall is of concern to county and jail officials.
Bill Collins, the Penobscot County administrator, went to Augusta for the review and said that one of the most worrisome moments came when a legislator from southern Maine asked the board what would happen if the state had no money to give for county jails.
“Sheriff Scott Story responded saying the system would break down,” Collins said. “I don’t want to cause fear amongst my employees, but short of personnel reductions and major changes to the jail, I don’t see how it can be achieved.”
Because of budget reworkings, some county jails may be downsized to a 72-hour holding facility, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said Tuesday, and municipal police departments likely will have to spend more time transporting prisoners more miles. Ross said that while there are many questions right now, just about the only thing he knows for sure is that he won’t receive enough funding to run the jail for the next two years.
“I know we’re going through tough times, and I know everybody has to tighten their belts,” Ross said. “But I’ll tell you, our belts have been tight for quite some time.”
He said that the budget at Penobscot County Jail is $6.3 million. That pays for an average of 172 inmates a night and for 76 full-time officers and 10 part-time people.
While Ross said that he is willing to give the board and the legislators the benefit of doubt that they might yet find a way to fund county jails, he is worried that there might be potentially dangerous repercussions if major cuts are implemented.
“The services we provide are important,” he said. “Look at what just happened in Oakland, California. This is about public safety. This is about keeping people who aren’t safe off the street.”