AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Corrections is requesting nearly $2.5 million in additional appropriations to get through the current budget year with food, fuel and utilities more than half of the total.
“The supplemental [budget] really is to address very, very basic operational costs,” Associate Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said. “Increases in electricity, food costs, fuel costs, utilities, so it really is to keep the correctional facilities up and running.”
Lord said all of the institutions have seen the costs of “the basics” go up during the past year. She said this is the second year of a two-year budget and costs projected nearly two years ago have been off, although not significantly.
“These are cost increases we have all seen when we go to the grocery store,” she said.
Lord said the budget request would have been higher, but the department has identified savings of more than $400,000 by reducing overtime costs and reducing the number of vehicles at the Maine State Prison and at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston.
“This is the first time we have been actually been able to give back some money from the overtime account,” she said. “In the past, we have had to use that to self-fund additional overtime costs.”
Lord said changing from eight-hour to 12-hour shifts has given the department improved scheduling ability and has reduced overtime costs. She said it has also allowed better management of the overtime that is needed.
Lord said the department is also proposing the elimination of a psychologist position at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and using the $115,000 in savings to pay for medical services.
But any request for additional funds will face intense scrutiny by the new Legislature and governor. Finance Commissioner Ellen Schneiter said the request from the department is just that — a request. She said Gov. Baldacci will make a recommendation to the new governor, but the final shape of the supplemental will be up to the winners of next month’s elections for governor and the Legislature.
“I think you will see a lot of questions asked about this and all the requests for supplemental spending,” Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said. She is the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “We don’t know what we will have for resources in January; we may have to make cuts in other areas to pay for a supplemental.”
She said paying the bills that are owed for basic services will be a priority, but even those areas will face scrutiny.
“Are there ways they can save on use, are there better ways to do something,” Cain said. “All will be asked.”
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the GOP senator on the Appropriations Committee, agreed lawmakers will reach agreement on paying the bills that are owed to provide basic services, but he said not all of the supplemental request is in that category.
“This issue of reclassification, which is essentially a retroactive realignment of employees’ pay, may very well have to wait for the next biennial budget,” he said. “We may just not have the money.”
More than $980,000 of the department request is to provide pay raises and retroactive pay for correctional sergeants and juvenile program specialists. Lord said as part of the collective bargaining process, it was determined they deserve higher pay for the work they do.
“Some of these are coming now, but in some cases they were approved more than a year ago,” Lord said. “Those are a reflection of what the responsibilities are for those jobs and we are required to put them forward.”
Rosen agreed they are obligations that will be paid, but said there is no requirement they be paid for in the supplemental budget. Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, agrees. He serves on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and said the workers in the corrections institutions deserve to be paid what they are worth.
“We will pay those obligations, but we may not be able to pay them in this budget,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of tough decisions that have to be made. We have to take care of our prisoners, but we have a lot of other people, many of our elderly that we also need to take care of.”
Rep. Ann Haskell, D-Portland, the co-chairwoman of the Committee, said the panel has always closely scrutinized the budget for the department, and she expects that will not change in the new Legislature. She said the reclassification issue likely would be controversial because paying some of it in the supplemental means less has to be paid in the two-year budget.
“It’s always difficult to deal with the corrections budget,” she said. “We don’t get to say no to the number of people that we have to serve. Those folks are sent to us by the courts, and when they arrive on our door we don’t get to say ‘Gee, we are sorry, we are out of money today.’”