Board relieves Somerset of jail tax burden

Posted July 20, 2010, at 12:52 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:26 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Somerset County officials expressed relief Monday over a State Board of Corrections decision that will save taxpayers as much as $650,000 in the county’s 2011 budget.

The Board of Corrections, the administrative body for the state’s county jails, met in Augusta on Monday to deliberate the last jail budget on its docket: Somerset County’s. At issue has been a dispute over how much of the Somerset County Jail’s budget will be paid by the state and whether the jail can use unspent surplus funds to reduce taxes.

After weeks of uncertainty that has stalled budget deliberations and forced Somerset County towns to delay mailing property tax bills, the Board of Corrections agreed with the county on both outstanding issues, said county commissioner Chairman Robert Dunphy.

“You can’t imagine how exhilarated I am,” Dunphy said Monday evening. “I’m very happy that it’s all done and that we’ve gotten the Board of Corrections on the same page.”

All told, as much as $900,000 has hung in the balance, though Dunphy said the exact amount wouldn’t be known for another couple of weeks while auditors develop end-of-year figures for fiscal year 2010.

Somerset County Sheriff Barry DeLong also expressed relief in Monday’s outcome. DeLong said the up to $900,000 in unspent money came from frugal practices and revenues generated by housing inmates from outside the county. In June, DeLong threatened to stop housing inmates and close a unit of the 2-year-old jail if the Board of Corrections didn’t agree with the county.

“I thought the board swung 180 degrees in our favor, and for once they were talking fairness,” said DeLong. “The state has backed off totally.”

If the board’s decision had gone the other way, DeLong said he was prepared to shut down the unit today.

“I don’t want to fight with the state, but I haven’t forgot who elected me,” said DeLong. “The taxpayers want me to protect their money, and as long as I’m sheriff that’s what I’m going to do.”

Dunphy said Monday’s decision means the county likely will approve its budget by the end of this month. The county budget committee, which must sign off on the budget first, is scheduled to meet July 28 and DeLong said he hopes county commissioners can meet that night as well. During a meeting last month, the budget committee made several final adjustments to the budget but tabled it until the decision by the Board of Corrections.

If the board’s decision had gone against the county, it likely would have triggered more cuts to county services and possibly a significant tax increase.

Dunphy said the total county budget and its impact on the towns are not yet known, but will be by the July 28 meeting.

According to Neale Duffett, chairman of the Board of Corrections, the total cost of county jails in Maine rose only about 1.2 percent for fiscal year 2011 for a total of about $79 million.

“One of the primary goals of the unified corrections system is to manage the cost of corrections,” he said in a press release. “Months of effort by many county officials have resulted in savings for Maine taxpayers.”

Duffett said the Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan is one of Maine’s premier correctional facilities.

“The board values Somerset County Jail as one of Maine’s four flagship jails and voted in favor of a budget that recognizes and supports their important contributions to Maine’s unified correctional system,” he said.

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