BANGOR, Maine — Confronted by a projected budget shortfall, Penobscot County commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to suspend a regional prisoner transportation system designed to save money until the program is funded to a level they consider adequate.
Sheriff Glenn Ross said Tuesday that the vote to suspend the Hub Transportation System, which serves more than half of the state’s counties, came after a discussion about a projected budget shortfall for this fiscal year, which began July 1.
As Penobscot County officials see it, the county faces a loss of about $700,000 as a result of a roughly 10 percent cut in last year’s budget, Ross said. Included in that amount, he said, was a loss of $280,000 from the transportation budget, which funded the Hub Transportation System.
However, an official with the state Board of Corrections, the administrative body for the state’s county jails, said that Penobscot County’s overall jail budget of just over $7.4 million reflected a 3.6 percent increase from the previous budget.
“Penobscot is operating under an approved budget,” Kate Snyder, development program manager for the Board of Corrections, said Tuesday night, referring to the Board Action Plan posted on the Board of Corrections website.
Snyder said it was too early to say what impact the hub program’s suspension would have on county jails that have been depending on it.
“It’s a new issue and it has not yet been taken up by the working group,” which makes recommendations to the board regarding budgets and other matters, she said.
Developed by Sgt. Donald Day, a corrections officer with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, the Hub Transportation System uses Penobscot County Jail resources to transport prisoners for several counties, including Aroostook, Hancock, Washington, Piscataquis, Waldo, Knox and Somerset.
The program arose after Day noted that several counties were driving the same routes to bring prisoners among facilities and to and from court appearances.
The program, which this year earned Day the Corrections Officer of the Year award from the Maine Sheriff’s Association, has saved the state tens of thousands of dollars, Ross said.
“In an effort to assist the system, we have not billed the investment fund for inmates housed at our facility on a leg of their journey to the state prison system,” he said. “Under our current approved budget we cannot continue to operate a system with the necessary funding withheld.”
It was not clear Tuesday what impact the suspension will have on participating jails.
“Today is the first that I’ve heard of this and I actually don’t know what is going to happen,” Snyder said.
She said the matter would be addressed on Aug. 19 by members of the Corrections Working Group, which may make a recommendation. If it is deemed a specialty issue, it may be referred to a focus group. The issue then will go before the board for a decision, she said.
Asked if the state corrections board might increase Penobscot County’s transportation funding, Snyder said, “I don’t have any insight on that. That’s a board issue.”
In his notice, Ross told county jail officials that “we will be unable to move their inmates to other facilities unless we have a vacant seat. We are adjusting our own transportation to state facilities to one day per week in order to maximize occupancy.”
He added that Penobscot County “will do whatever we can to help other counties to the best of our ability, but our current loss of transportation money results in significant adjustments to our operations. … We will remain responsible for any inmate still in transit under the former system. We are sorry to have to take these steps but we must compensate for the significant loss.”