About half of all Androscoggin County residents confined in the county jail reside in Lewiston. Yet, Lewiston taxpayers pay less than one-third of the county’s jail costs, according to a Sun Journal analysis.
The reason is more crime in the city and a state-mandated funding formula for county services that some people believe favors Lewiston taxpayers when it comes to jail funding.
“The rest of the county is subsidizing Lewiston,” Greene Town Manager Charles Noonan said. He said the time has come for the city to pay a fee for its use of the jail, to balance costs and services, much as the county’s small towns have been asked to pay fees for their use of the county’s dispatching service to answer emergency calls and talk to local police, paramedics and firefighters.
“Fair is fair,” Noonan said.
The Sun Journal recently examined records on every person who entered the Androscoggin County Jail for the past two years. The newspaper logged the residencies of all 8,894 inmates booked at the Auburn jail between Jan. 1, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2012. Of those, 2,090 resided outside Androscoggin County. The remaining 6,804 were categorized by town of residence.
The analysis showed that 22 residents from the county’s smallest town, Wales, were booked at the jail in 2012. Its share of the jail costs under the current formula, $58,736, figured to be more than $2,600 per inmate.
Durham, with 32 inmates in the county jail, paid $190,786, or $5,962 per inmate — the highest per-inmate cost in the county.
The county’s most populated community, Lewiston, received a better deal. With 1,655 residents jailed — 49.9 percent of the Androscoggin County people incarcerated — Lewiston paid 28.9 percent of the jail costs, about $748 per inmate.
Of the county’s 14 towns, only Lewiston and two others — Auburn and Livermore Falls — paid lower percentages of jail costs than their shares of inmates. But the two other towns’ disparities were far smaller, and the cost per inmate much higher. Auburn paid 24.6 percent of the jail levy — approximately $1,222 per inmate — and was home to 25.2 percent of the county’s inmates. Livermore Falls paid 1.99 percent of the levy — $1,066 per inmate — and had 2.4 percent of the inmates.
“We’re not shocked by the numbers,” said Phil Nadeau, Lewiston’s deputy city administrator. “We’d be shocked if it were the same number as our assessment.”
It’s part of being one of the few cities in a rural area, he said.
Nadeau guessed that many of the Lewiston residents who are jailed had relocated to the city because of the walkability of the city and its available social services.
“A pretty good number of them were not born here,” he said. “They are from away.”
Crime follows the population, he said.
“It’s a consequence of being the second-largest city in the state,” Nadeau said. “It’s just the way it is.”
A slippery slope
Noonan — the Greene town manager — says such arguments fail.
For years, Lewiston and Auburn leaders have been calling loudly for fairness in the way the county spends taxpayer money. The key issue has been the cost of the county’s dispatching services. The two cities run their own communications center, which answers emergency calls and dispatches police, fire and rescue services.
However, as part of the county tax levy, the two cities also pay more than half of the cost of the county’s dispatch center, which allows the Sheriff’s Department to talk with its deputies. The center also answers emergency calls for the county’s other 12 towns. Small per-call fees were assessed for ambulance and fire calls. Three town police departments received dispatching services without paying additional fees.
Again and again, L-A representatives asked, “Why should we pay for a service that we do not receive?”
This past fall, the three-member Androscoggin County Commission finally settled on a plan that charged fees to the towns for the dispatch service and lowered the cities’ shares. In 2013, Lewiston is expected to see a savings of $34,527; Auburn, $27,701.
By pushing the fairness issue, Lewiston began a slide down a slippery slope, Noonan said. Officials from the small towns began to wonder if they were paying into the county budget for services they weren’t receiving.
“The slope doesn’t stop halfway down,” Noonan said. “It keeps going.”
Noonan, whose town in 2012 paid 4 percent of the jail costs but accounted for only 2 percent of the bookings, according to the Sun Journal analysis, believes that county commissioners ought to create a fee for the jail to reflect who uses it.
“I’m sure they could figure it out,” he said.
A fee — or a bundle of fees — could be in the works.
Randall Greenwood, chairman of the County Commission and a resident of Wales, recently asked Androscoggin County department heads to begin examining who uses their services, including the Sheriff’s Department, emergency management, deeds, probate and the District Attorney’s Office.
“I’m trying to gather all this data so that I can show all the communities what services the county provides,” Greenwood said. “When this is all done, I’m hoping we come out somewhere as a balance.”
“Picking on one thing like dispatch and saying, ‘We don’t get our value for that,’ might not work,” he said. “You might get your value from something else the county provides.”
Commissioner Beth Bell of Auburn agreed.
“I think it’s wise to look at who uses the services and have a better understanding,” she said. Financially, budgets at all levels of government are getting tighter.
Fees might even the scales, said Greenwood, who said he was surprised by the analysis showing high use of the jail by Lewiston residents.
“It only reinforces the argument that what’s fair is fair,” Greenwood said.
However, the commission chairman said he was unsure whether a jail fee — such as a charge for each booking at the jail — would be legal. Maine statute demands that counties supply jail services. And all 16 counties are funded the same way: by an assessment on each town and city based on the municipality’s valuation.
Historically, that method has been challenged.
The last time was in the late 1980s, said Mark Westrum, chairman of the Maine Board of Corrections and the administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. It failed under political pressure from cities.
The reality is that jailing people is the single largest piece of the budget in every Maine county, Westrum said.
In Androscoggin County, the total tax levy to the towns and cities for 2013 is $7.69 million. The jail operation costs local taxpayers $4.2 million.
“The bigger communities tend to, as much as they complain, get a pretty good deal for the amount of money they pay into county government,” Westrum said. “The bigger communities won’t tell you that.”
‘All things to all people’
The disparity is no surprise to Kurt Schaub, administrator of the town of Livermore.
“We’ve known about this, pretty much accepted it, for years,” he said. “For the longest time, people didn’t pay attention to these things because there wasn’t a whole lot of pushing and shoving.”
Budgets were passed and costs didn’t climb too high, he said.
“Everything is under the microscope these days, so, of course people are going to look at this,” he said. “We’re clearly paying disproportionately based on where the inmates come from.”
He added, “The average Livermore resident would say, ‘We’re being overcharged,’ and they wouldn’t be wrong, if that’s the way you look at it. But you have to look at all of the services that the county provides.”
He pointed out that another large piece of the county budget — rural patrol — favors the small towns. In 2013, the county is slated to spend about $1.3 million on the Sheriff’s Department. Though the county’s deputies and detectives often help the cities, most of their work is focused on the smaller communities.
“Is it an even trade-off? I’m not entirely certain of that,” Schaub said. “The county is a form of group arrangement and you’re going to find inequities. I don’t think it’s appropriate for communities, large or small, to make sure they get every dollar back out of a county arrangement that they put in.”
Minot Selectman Stephen French also counseled moderation.
“I sat on those [dispatch] committees for the biggest part of eight years,” he said. “It’s frustrating. [The budget] isn’t going to be all things to all people all of the time.”
Part of the problem is an uncomfortable mix of rural and urban, he said.
“We’re one of those counties with two big cities and 12 small communities,” he said. “Good luck; that’s all I can tell you.”
End the nitpicking
As the county commissioner who represents Lewiston, Elaine Makas feels the pull from both sides, she said.
“I don’t think that the Lewiston population is any worse than anybody else’s,” Makas said. “I think that what’s happened has been that, over time, people have collected in Lewiston because they have limited resources. And it’s exactly those people who are most likely to end up in jail.”
She added, “There are some things that we share. I’m ready to put this whole thing to bed regarding dispatch [costs]. Things are fairer.”
Her hope is that the “nitpicking” is over, she said.
Nadeau, the Lewiston deputy administrator, believes many of the county’s budget woes could be fixed if more people understood that a piece of their local property tax bills goes to pay county services.
Municipalities have no choice but to incorporate the expense in their bills.
“You want county government, then have the county start sending out tax bills,” Nadeau said. “Have them start sitting down and having to face taxpayers who are going to go in and rip them a new one.”
He has little patience for people who think Lewiston ought to owe more money for the county services it gets.
“I understand that they want to throw darts,” he said. “But the fact is, if you want to go along with having a big city in your backyard, that is a consequence of what’s going to happen.”