MACHIAS, Maine — The Washington County commissioners opted Thursday to have an emergency meeting with their attorney next week rather than sign a lease with the state that is part of proposed county courthouse renovations.
“We are wary now,” Chairman Chris Gardner told Ted Glessner and Jeff Henthorn of the state’s Court Facilities Division, referring to the state’s failure to fully fund its share of costs when the jail consolidation program was installed after 2009.
“The state has failed, in the county’s estimation, to hold up its end of the bargain,” Gardner said. “It is not the courts’ fault but you can understand that this has not gone well. We — the commissioners — are responsible for what we put on the taxpayers.”
Gardner said, “The state has failed to prioritize and it cannot fund things it promised to fund.”
The commissioners expressed concern that the lease agreement for the proposed $12 million expansion and renovation of the county courthouse would give the state control over not just the state-funded expansion, but also much of the rest of the county building.
“No one here argues that upgrades are needed,” Gardner said. His statement was backed up by Judge John Romei, who called the Washington County Courthouse “the worst facility in the state. On court days you have 100 people all using one unisex bathroom.”
Romei said people must wait in the hallway outside the undersize courtroom, and victims are forced to stand with perpetrators. “It is a horrible situation,” he said. “If we miss this opportunity, it may be 10 years before it comes again.”
But Gardner asked for caution. “We are making a 100-year decision here, and we are concerned about the costs going forward. We, as a county, have no need for this expansion. If our budget goes up because of the state’s need, it will be hard to swallow,” he said. “By signing this lease, we may put something into motion while not knowing the implications.”
“The devil is in the details,” Commissioner John Crowley added.
Glessner said the state will be issuing bonds to pay for the project, which has been discussed for more than 20 years, but without a lease agreement for the land upon which the expansion will be built, the bonds cannot be issued.
Further complicating the decision is the quick turnaround. Glessner said the lease has to be signed in less than a week, by Wednesday, May 15.
“This lease has a total lack of detail and, excuse the expression, I feel we have a gun to our head to sign it,” Gardner said. “I cannot stress enough that we are not arguing the need and are thankful to the state for the money, but we are ever so mindful — as every county in the state should be since the jail consolidation — that we need to proceed with trepidation.”
“This won’t work unless it’s a cooperative effort,” Glessner said. “We are delighted to be here in Washington County.” He agreed that amendments could be made to the language of the lease that would ease the commissioners’ concerns.
An emergency meeting was sent for Monday morning, May 13, with state and county officials and attorneys representing both. “It’s the only way to move forward,” Commissioner Vinton Cassidy said.
“We will go into that meeting wanting to find a way to get this done,” Gardner said.