AUGUSTA, Maine — A state legislative committee has given its unanimous support to a bill sought by the town of Warren that would exclude state prisoners from its population count, a move that would save the community money.
The bill, LD 1697, was sponsored by Rep. Wes Richardson, R-Warren, and Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston.
Richardson said Friday that town officials had asked him to submit the legislation because as of July 1, 2012, the town would be mandated to enforce the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code because its population surpassed the 4,000 mark based on the 2010 U.S. Census. The new population figure also would mean that the town would have to pick up a much larger share of the Knox County dispatch fees.
Warren’s population increased from 3,794 in the 2000 census to 4,751 in the 2010 census. The Maine State Prison, which relocated from Thomaston to Warren in 2002, has the capacity to house 916 inmates.
Warren Code Enforcement Officer Bill O’Donnell was one of the people who testified for the bill during a public hearing on Feb. 7 before the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.
He said the census population is simply not accurate.
“Counting inmates in the town’s population is a grave mistake and poses undue hardship for the residents of our community,” O’Donnell said.
He said the prison inmates do nothing to support the town, do not pay property taxes, and cannot vote in local elections.
O’Donnell said the state promised that the prison would not be a burden to the town when it moved to Warren but that has not been the case. He said until recently, the town ambulance department was required to respond to calls from the prison — that is now done through a private contract by the state — and the Fire Department must respond when there are calls.
The actual population increase for the town during the decade was only 30, he said, not counting the prisoners.
But because of state law, the town would be required to pay an additional $30,000 to Knox County in 2012 for public safety dispatch fees since the distribution of costs is based on population. The bill would rise from $88,322 to $118,678 if the prisoners are counted in the population, the code officer noted.
In addition, the town would be required to enforce the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code starting on July 1 because its population exceeds 4,000. O’Donnell said this makes no sense since prisoners are not going to be filing building permits.
“If existing residents and businesses or newcomers want to build anything, such as a house, an addition or a garage, they will be forced to pay more to do so in the cost of inspections and additional building materials to meet the new code because of the inclusion of inmates in the census population count,” O’Donnell concluded.
The only impact on other communities would be that the $30,000 that Warren would have paid in extra dispatch fees would be distributed among the remaining communities in Knox County.
Richardson said there was no opposition to the bill during a committee work session held on the legislation on Feb. 9 and that members unanimously recommended its passage to the full Legislature.
The Warren Republican said he expects a vote by the full Legislature in about two weeks.