AUGUSTA, Maine — Franklin County pretrial inmates — those who have not been convicted — will continue to be transported dozens of miles to open beds around the state on a daily basis.
The county’s transport officers will continue to rack up overtime as they drive inmates to other jails and then back for court sessions and medical appointments.
The state Board of Corrections voted 5-2 Tuesday against returning the Franklin County Detention Center in Farmington to a full-service jail. It was changed in July 2009 from a fully operational jail to a 72-hour holding facility when the state consolidated county jails.
The board’s vote followed a two-hour public hearing and deliberation.
It came down to the state not being able to do without Franklin County taxpayers’ annual $630,500 to help fund other jails.
Taxpayers in Franklin County raise about $1.6 million for the jail each year but need only about $1 million to operate it as a holding facility. Due to increased transportation costs, the county spent about $1.1 million to operate in 2012-13. The state capped the amount taxpayers in each county would raise at the 2008 level when the jails were joined in a unified state-run system four years ago.
The system is 75 percent short of money to fund the fourth quarter for 2013-14 year at current levels, Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum said. The board voted to accept budgets that reflected the actual cost of running the jails in August. Those amounts are much more than the 2012-13 budgets.
The board’s decision did not sit well with Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr., nor with a group of county residents who attended the hearing.
“The state of Maine is depending upon Franklin County to make the unified system work,” Nichols said after the hearing. “It is very upsetting. We can push back. I’m not going to give up.”
John Calloway of Avon, chairman of the Franklin County Budget Advisory Committee, said the county should withhold taxes paid to the state for jails.
Nichols and Franklin County Detention Center Manager Doug Blauvelt prior to the hearing submitted a budget to the state of nearly $1.6 million to run a fully operational jail. That included having 44 beds for inmates, which is about 14 more than the county needs. It would be open to house inmates from other jails.
During the BOC’s public hearing, the second one held on Franklin County’s request to change its jail mission, Nichols submitted 100 signatures of residents supporting the jail’s return to full service.
Scott Ferguson, the BOC’s fiscal adviser, told the board that Franklin County’s $630,500 is already factored into the investment fund. If the jail were returned to full service, the fund would not have that $630,500 available, he said during questioning at the hearing.
There is no other money available, barring supplemental funding from the Legislature or other additional revenue, he said.
Several board members said they were struggling with removing the $630,500 that Franklin County would provide and the effect it would have on other jails.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, a member of the Board of Corrections, said it was Franklin County residents’ money. Keeping the jail a 72-hour holding facility presents a hardship to the county, including inmates and families, he said.
“I think it’s not a loss to the system,” Liberty said. “It is Franklin County’s money.” He said the money should follow the inmate.
Westrum said he could not be persuaded to vote in favor of opening Franklin County to full service in 2013-14. The money just wasn’t there, he said. “We don’t even have enough money to fund the fiscal year 2014.”
He said Gov. Paul LePage made it very clear to the Maine County Commissioners Association on Friday that he has given the board three years to get the unified system running. And in three years, they have not figured out how to do it, he said.
The governor didn’t include prisoners in his funding priorities, Westrum said.
Liberty made the motion to change the jail to full service. He and board member Carlton Barnes Jr. were the only two who voted in favor.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black said he would draft a decision for the board to consider at its next meeting.
Westrum asked that it include the caveat that if the Legislature agrees to supplement the unified jail system budget, the board could reconsider reopening Franklin County to full service in 2013-14.