AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Board of Corrections on Tuesday averted a possible shutdown of the Androscoggin County Jail by approving a payout to the jail of about $210,000.
Without the money, the Auburn jail would have been unable to pay its staff, beginning May 17.
“It’s a weight off our minds,” Sheriff Guy Desjardins said. “We were looking at closing, absolutely no question.”
The state board, which oversees Maine’s network of 15 county jails, voted to withhold all or partial funding from several other jails, including those in Somerset, Knox and Cumberland counties.
Somerset County Sheriff Barry DeLong, who has refused to accept other counties’ inmates at his jail in Madison, immediately issued a statement criticizing the Board of Corrections’ decision to withhold all state money.
“The state is trying to penalize Somerset County for trying to reduce the tax burden while continuing to ensure public safety,” DeLong said.
Neither Franklin nor Oxford counties received money, since both operate small-scale holding facilities. However, plans have risen in both counties to restore those facilities to fully operational jails.
In all, the board approved payments totaling $1.6 million, well below the $2.4 million budgeted for Maine’s jails. The money represented fourth quarter payments, covering the state share of jail costs for the months of April, May and June.
Though some jails received nothing, Androscoggin was allotted about $26,000 more than the $184,000 it was due. The money was requested to cover additional retirement and medical costs.
Desjardins believed his jail has had too little money since the current fiscal year began last July. However, he and other Maine sheriffs have worried that no end-of-year funding was coming.The state’s budget squeeze had forced cuts that challenged each county.
Two weeks ago, Desjardins sent a letter to Gov. Paul LePage, warning of a possible closure. On April 30, LePage met with all 16 sheriffs on the matter. They left resolved to change the current system to make it work more effectively.
Desjardins left with an assurance by LePage that he would not be forced to close his jail.
“When the governor looked at me and said, ‘Sheriff, you don’t have to worry, you’re not closing,’ I need to put a little weight in that statement,” said Desjardins, who also thanked LePage for his help.
The sheriff plans to continue cost-cutting moves begun last month, including a hold on most repairs and purchases. The jail also will continue its after-hours transportation policy, leaving the task of transporting newly arrested juveniles to corrections facilities up to the arresting agency.
The move was meant to cut overtime costs.
“We’ll see where that gets us,” Desjardins said. “My goal would be to have a surplus and give the added money back to the (Board of Corrections).
Rough budget times are not over.
The Board of Corrections has asked county officials to prepare zero-increase budgets for the next two years.
Little solace was offered to officials from Aroostook and Penobscot counties, which are facing overcrowding at their jails.
At the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, officials sent 55 inmates to other jails and held 40 more than capacity, Chief Deputy Troy Morton said.
Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story asked the board to work harder to make legislators better understand the effects of flat-funded budgets.
“We should not wait until we have a corrections officer or an inmate seriously injured or killed in this state before we finally say, ‘This is dangerous,’” he said.