AUGUSTA, Maine — The worst effects of the county jail budget crisis, including closed jails, endangered corrections officers and widespread inmate furloughs, could be averted, Maine’s sheriffs said Tuesday after an hourlong meeting with Gov. Paul LePage.
The governor also insisted that the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn would remain open despite the crisis, Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.
“He was really engaging,” said Desjardins, who wrote to LePage last week with a warning that the jail might have to close without promised state money.
LePage didn’t have the money, Desjardins said.
“He had a lot of questions,” the sheriff said. “The one thing we all agreed on was that the system is broken.”
Maine’s five-year-old county jail system was created to save money. It diverted a portion of jail costs from local taxpayers to the state.
However, sheriffs and the administrators of the state’s 15 county jails say the state rarely has spent enough. Several counties, including York and Androscoggin, say they will run out of money this month to pay their workers.
When Maine’s Board of Corrections meets May 7, it will consider end-of-fiscal-year requests from every county.
Maine owes the 15 jails a total of about $2.4 million. The Board of Corrections is expected to have only half that amount to distribute.
In Androscoggin County, the bill is $184,000. County commissioners plan to meet Wednesday night to discuss the next steps, including whether to formally alert the unionized workers of a possible layoff.
The rest of the state is watching. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he hopes to get by with a partial payment. So do others.
All also are worried about the state’s next two-year budget cycle. The Board of Corrections has told counties to plan for no increases from 2013 levels.
A budget that doesn’t allow for rising food or heating costs would force cuts, Joyce said.
“We’ve cut pencils, erasers and paper clips,” he said. “We’re down to cutting jobs.”
However, a LePage spokeswoman said more money can be saved.
“We know there are inefficiencies,” said Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary. A new task force announced Tuesday by the governor’s office is expected to look for places to cut and other options.
The task force will include sheriffs and other county leaders, members of the state Board of Corrections and officials from the Department of Corrections. The new committee could be formed within days, Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said.
It’s been a tough week.
LePage was briefed on the budget crunch last Friday. Invitations for the sheriff’s meeting went out the same day.
When they arrived Tuesday afternoon, the governor told them they had three choices: a rollback of the jail system to full county control, a state takeover of the system or a compromise.
“I was discouraged when I first went into the meeting with the governor,” Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said.
As the governor spoke, Ross said he became convinced that LePage was trying to help.
“I believe that the governor was very open-minded, understood the system to be broken, and he’s willing to be looking at various options,” Ross said.
“We’re committed to working with him,” Ross said. “I feel encouraged that the governor wants to fix it.”