May 23, 2018
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Counties’ finances strained by jail consolidation law

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Frustrated county officials across Maine are considering launching an effort to repeal or reform the state’s prison-jail consolidation law. They say they are fed up with serving as the scapegoat for the state’s budget woes.

It all comes down to finances, and the counties are getting the short end of the stick, said Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong, who confirmed Friday that repeal discussions were under way. Angered by the state’s failure to fully fund his jail’s operation, Delong announced Thursday he would close part of his jail and board only his county’s inmates if the state didn’t fully fund his jail by July 1.

The consolidation effort approved by the Legislature two years ago, which was sold as a way to reduce costs and ensure that tax rates would not increase, hasn’t done what it was intended to do, Delong said.

Under the law, counties pay a capped amount for the operation of their jails and any overages incurred are to be paid by the state. In addition, the jail beds are used for both state and county inmates.

“That was the premise of the deal,” Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County commissioners, said Friday.

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While the counties gave up their beds, the state now says it can’t meet its financial obligations, he said.

Gardner, Delong and other county officials point to additional problems with the law besides the lack of funding. They say that:

– County budgets are micromanaged by the state Board of Corrections created by the consolidation law, yet there is no scrutiny by that board of the Department of Corrections budget.

– The mixing of jail and prison inmates, whose crimes vary considerably, causes problems and tensions.

– Counties have to absorb the medical or dental costs incurred by inmates in their facility within their budgets.

– Considerable time is lost by county employees who must attend the frequent Board of Corrections and working group meetings.

County officials also cite the discrepancies between the salaries of county and state corrections officers who serve the same prison inmate population.

Denise Lord, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said she is well aware that some county officials do not like the consolidation law, but she insisted that it has saved money.

“There’s been significant property tax savings,” and that was the impetus behind the consolidation effort, she said Friday.

Lord said that in the three budget years since the law has been in effect, a General Fund investment of $8.5 million has achieved a cumulative property tax savings of $18.3 million statewide.

But those savings were realized because the county jails became the recipients of many of the state’s prisoners, said Peter Crichton, president of the Maine Association of County Clerks, Administrators and Managers. His organization, which represents 12 counties, has recommended to Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci, who represents Maine county commissioners on a state corrections advisory panel, that the consolidation law be repealed and replaced with new legislation.

“Our association is very concerned about what is happening,” Crichton said Friday. “It’s been very difficult, the funding is unreliable and consequently the funding is not sustainable for the county jails.”

Crichton said county officials have tried to make it work. While they understand the state has financial difficulties, they worry they are “falling into a trap” in which funding for jails is based on unsound spending practices by the state, he said.

“The challenge of the board [of corrections] is to make sure that every county has sufficient funds to run its jails,” Lord said. She did acknowledge that if state expenditures for jails are flat-funded in the next few years, the cost of operating the jails would exceed what’s available. The Board of Corrections would then have to decide whether additional funds would be requested of the Legislature or additional efficiencies made, or a combination of both, Lord said.

Some county officials don’t want to wait to get to that point.

“The whole ‘One Maine, One System’ is what we keep getting pushed on us, and inevitably, if it’s supposed to be ‘One Maine, One System,’ everyone should be on the same playing field,” Amy Fowler, a Waldo County commissioner, said Friday. “We can already prove that is not the case and that’s been very evident from Day One.”

Jails are not being funded the way they need to be funded, she said.

While sympathetic to the state’s financial woes and acknowledging there have been savings, Gardner insisted those savings would have occurred without the law. He said the law was based on the premise that the counties and the state would hold up their respective ends of the bargain, but that the state has failed to meet its obligations.

John O’Connell, Lincoln County’s administrator, said Two Bridges Regional Jail of Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties is facing a $300,000 budget cut. Jail officials budgeted $1.7 million for the year, but the Board of Corrections slashed it to $1.4 million. He said he’s been told the state would make up the difference if needed, but he wondered from where those funds would come.

Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties pay $1 million a year each in debt service for the Two Bridges facility in Wiscasset, O’Connell said Friday. Lincoln County alone pays $2.7 million for the operation of the regional jail, plus the debt service. Since Lincoln County averages about 40 inmates at the jail, it pays $3.7 million a year to house them.

“That’s the kind of number that really causes us heartburn,” O’Connell said. “The state talks about helping property taxpayers. Well, they are not helping property taxpayers in Lincoln County; the major beneficiary is the state,” he said.

The budget for the Piscataquis County Jail also was slashed $50,000 by the Board of Corrections, according to Dave Harmon, the jail’s administrator.

“It was a surprise to me because the last I knew, I had a tentative approval of my budget at $50,000 more than it was finally approved at,” he said Friday. He said county officials try to attend the Board of Corrections meetings as well as the numerous other state working committees, but it is not always possible. Unbeknownst to him, it was at one of those missed meetings that the Board of Corrections decided to cut his budget.

Some counties consistently have budget surpluses; because Piscataquis and Kennebec counties were two of those, their budgets were reduced, Lord said.

County budgets are scrutinized in depth, according to O’Connell, yet the Board of Corrections has not even reviewed the Department of Corrections budget for the state prisons. “All they have done is nit-pick their way through every single county budget in way too much detail,” he said.

Lord said the Board of Corrections has not reviewed the Department of Corrections budget because it was in the biennial budget approved by the Legislature more than a year ago. Since county jails had no approved budgets for 2010 and 2011, the board’s priority was to approve those budgets first, she said.

“This whole process is new,” Lord said. She said it’s the first time 16 county budgets have been put together along with the Department of Corrections budget.

“I know it’s been hard for each individual county, but it’s been a learning experience for all of us,” she said.

Lord said she believes things will continue to improve and the process will eventually be streamlined and become less burdensome.

That doesn’t comfort Fowler of Waldo County. County jails cannot continue to operate the way they are operating, she said.

“It’s very disappointing to have someone who cannot even fiscally manage their budget now scrutinizing ours,” she said.

Gardner said every county has been trying to work in good faith to make the consolidation work, but problems persist.

“We have to question and wonder exactly what the benefit is for what we’re getting,” he said. “The state has to hold up its end of the deal, and if it can’t do it, then we need to go back to the way things were.”

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