MACHIAS, Maine — Members of the Washington County board of visitors praised a recent proposal of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association that would protect surplus jail funds from being raided by the state.
The board of visitors is a citizens’ watchdog group, created by statute, that consists of attorneys, psychologists, social workers, counselors and others familiar with the jail system.
Sheriff Donnie Smith told the group about the surplus fund protection plan at its annual meeting Thursday.
At a Maine Sheriffs’ Association retreat two weeks ago, 14 of the 16 county sheriffs agreed to put all fund balance surpluses in a special trust fund.
“Previously, anything the county saved, the [state Bureau of Corrections] took away,” Smith said. Because counties lost such savings each year, sheriffs were saying they were going to spend all of their funds before the end of each year.
“To have a $70,000 surplus is normally a good thing,” Smith said, adding that the system now promotes abuse.
“I’ve been opposed to this law for a long time. That’s no secret,” Smith said. “I’m not opposed to sharing resources but I’m not sure the BOC could constitutionally take our money. We have a county budget committee that sets the budget, the county commissioners accept it, the taxes are put on county people, and the county raises the money. Then the state takes it.”
Smith said, “I am not happy sending any county money to the state.”
Smith said the Bureau of Corrections indicated it was in favor of the trust. “They didn’t know what to do with the money either,” he said. “We didn’t want the state, with its budget crisis, to be able to come in and sweep the money away.”
Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald told the board of visitors that she attended a Maine County Commissioners’ meeting Wednesday where commissioners overwhelmingly voted in favor of the trust.
“They also said it should be memorialized in BOC rules and through legislation,” she said.
Smith said the trust system would allow each county to keep 25 percent of its fund balance, up to 2 percent of its operating budget. These funds may be spent only on correctional needs. The balance would be placed in the trust.
“For example, if the Washington County Jail needed a new roof, we could appeal to the trust for the funds,” he said. He said the makeup of the board that will oversee the funds has not been determined. The Maine Sheriffs’ Association proposal indicates the trustees will be four members as determined by the County Commissioners’ Association and three members appointed by the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. It will be called the County Corrections Trust Account.
If a trust fund cannot be established, the sheriffs proposed that funds remain in each individual county in a designated fund for county corrections purposes only.
Fourteen county sheriffs voted in favor of the trust, while Somerset and Franklin sheriffs were absent for the vote.
Because Washington County is not represented on the Bureau of Corrections, Smith said he would be seeking a seat for the county on the trust board.
“It will need to be someone who understands corrections,” board of visitors member Betsy K. Jaegerman added.