BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County commissioners on Tuesday morning told Sheriff Glenn Ross to take the following message to Gov. Paul LePage: “Properly fund the jail system as the law requires.”
Ross, one of 14 sheriffs who met with LePage Tuesday afternoon to discuss a crisis in jail funding, said after the meeting that the governor “recognizes that the system is broken.”
The sheriff said that LePage discussed three options with the group: return control of the jails to the counties immediately; have the state take over the jails completely; or revise the law so that “it works better.”
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith and Aroostook County Sheriff James P. Madore did not attend the meeting in Augusta. Aroostook County Jail Administrator James Foss represented Madore, Ross said.
“The governor said that the law was not working and it was a law that he did not support,” Ross said, referring to the law passed in 2008 that brought county jails under control of the state Board of Corrections.
He said the consensus among the sheriffs was to work with the governor to amend the law next year.
The sheriff said that he would prefer a gradual return of control of the jails to the counties provided that would not increase the burden on county taxpayers.
Ross said that he and others expressed concern about the problems a flat-funded budget over the next two years would cause in their jails. The sheriff said Tuesday morning that originally he was told by the Maine Board of Corrections, which oversees the consolidated jail system, to submit a proposed budget that would fully fund his operation.
“Now, we find out there’s no money to do that,” Ross told the commissioners. “I’ve been told to cut $600,000 in FY ’14 and $800,000 in FY ’15.”
Fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30.
Ross said after he spoke with commissioners that if he is forced to make cuts as deep as the BOC has requested, he will have to eliminate 12-14 positions.
“There’s nothing to cut but bone,” Commissioner Peter Baldacci said. “The governor and the Legislature need to properly fund the system as the law has said it should.”
Baldacci said that a “summit” should be called to take an in-depth look at the whole justice system. It should include judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, corrections officials from county jails and state prisons and elected officials, the Bangor attorney said.
The sheriff said it will take $8.02 million to run the jail in fiscal year 2014 and $8.3 million to operate in fiscal year 2015.
The budget for the fiscal year that ends on June 30 is nearly $7.5 million, but expenses are expected to be $100,000 over that figure. Growing medical costs are driving the increases, Ross said.
The sheriff said that the biennial budget is in the hands of the governor and the Legislature.
“I felt very encouraged leaving the meeting,” he said Tuesday evening.
The consolidation that brought the county jails under the control of the Board of Corrections was put in place in 2008 during the Baldacci administration after the jail consolidation law was passed. The amount of county property tax money contributed to the support of the jails was frozen.
In 2008, the state spent $73.7 million on jails, according to a previously published report. Funding rose by 2 percent to $75.2 million in 2009 and was increased the next year by 2.6 percent and by 2.4 percent in 2011. The budget for 2012 was increased by 1 percent. For the fiscal year that ends June 30, the budget increased 0.6 percent.
In other news, Deputy Chief Troy Morton told commissioners Tuesday morning that the sheriff’s office Saturday collected more drugs in the drug take-back program than it has previously. Deputies were stationed in Cascade Park in Bangor and the Penobscot County Jail.
“We collected 202 pounds of unused prescription drugs,” he said Tuesday morning. “Statewide, 22,200 pounds was collected.”
In the past, Penobscot County sheriff’s deputies have collected between 130 and 140 pounds of drugs, he said.