Budget squeeze may force layoffs at jails across Maine

An inmate at the Penobscot County Jail shovels the steps of the sherrif's office in Bangor during pre-dawn darkness on Sunday.
An inmate at the Penobscot County Jail shovels the steps of the sherrif's office in Bangor during pre-dawn darkness on Sunday.
Posted Dec. 19, 2013, at 6:24 a.m.
Last modified Dec. 19, 2013, at 9:10 p.m.
Penobscot County Corrections officer Sgt. Chris Wilson stands near the door of a empty cell at the Penobscot County Jail on Thursday. Penobscot County Commissioners took a tour of the facility on July 2, 2013 to get a better understanding of staffing and overcrowding issues at the jail.
Penobscot County Corrections officer Sgt. Chris Wilson stands near the door of a empty cell at the Penobscot County Jail on Thursday. Penobscot County Commissioners took a tour of the facility on July 2, 2013 to get a better understanding of staffing and overcrowding issues at the jail.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The State Board of Corrections told the operators of Maine’s 15 county jails Tuesday to get by this budget season with a zero increase, potentially forcing layoffs and even closures.

The board voted 3-2 to approve an $80.3 million budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2014. It’s about $3.7 million shy of the $84 million that county officials across the state said they needed to get by without closing portions of their jails or layoffs.

“We’ll have facilities shutting down, pods shutting down and the system collapses,” Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said.

In Androscoggin County, it’s not certain what the change would mean, Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.

Over the next few days, he plans to open the jail’s books and see exactly how much of its $5.5 million budget has been spent. Some savings may be found, he said, but he is unsure if it will be enough.

“We need to see where we’re at,” Desjardins said Tuesday. “At the end of the day, I need to know, ‘Can we make payroll and expenses?’”

There’s also some hope of rescue by the Maine Legislature.

The Board of Corrections plans to lobby the Legislature strongly for additional funding when it reconvenes in January. Board members plan to ask for gap funding to get by. Meanwhile, the Legislature is scheduled to examine a task force proposal that would add authority to the 5-year-old Board of Corrections.

“It’s a struggle,” board Chairman Mark Westrum said of the coming lobby effort. “We can ask. We can make our case, and I think we’ll do a good job of it. I think we deserve it. [But] I don’t know if we’ll get what we want.

“Come spring, we’d better be prepared to start shutting something down,” he said.

Across Maine, jail administrators said they need the money to meet rising health care costs and other expenses related to personnel.

Westrum, who also serves as administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, said he already began under a flat-funded budget when the fiscal year began on July 1. He was forced to let go of five staff.

Liberty said he did the same at the Kennebec County Jail.

However, he cannot stop accepting inmates, has been overcrowded and, with fewer staff, has forced many remaining staff to go on seven-day work weeks.

“It’s a terrible burden on the staff and can’t be sustained,” Liberty said.

The effects led some board members to vote against passage of the budget, even though they were counseled that they are legally barred from passing a budget that was greater than their own revenue.

“The ripple effects are going to be catastrophic,” said board member Susan Morissette of Winslow. “It’s really hard for me, understanding that legally this is the best thing to do but morally knowing that my county is jeopardizing the people that work there and putting the public in danger because we’re going to end up putting criminals back on the street.”

Aroostook County Manager Douglas Beaulieu refused to vote for the budget because it would mean the closure of his jail by April, he said.

Again and again, officials cited costs they were unable to control — such as health care — and slim funding from the state.

In 2009, funding rose by 2 percent to $75.2 million. In 2010, they were given a 2.6 percent hike and 2.4 percent the next year. The 2012 budget rose by only 1 percent.

In 2013, spending crossed the $80 million mark with a rise of just 0.6 percent.

Most of the approved appropriation comes from the counties, though.

In Androscoggin County, for instance, local taxpayers pay about $4.2 million. The remaining part of the budget, about $1.2 million, comes from the state. The funding split was settled in 2008 as part of the legislation that created the statewide jail system.

Androscoggin County Jail Administrator John Lebel said he planned to meet with Desjardins in the coming days, but options will be limited.

If budget demands force personnel cuts, portions of the jail also would have to be shut down, Lebel said.

That’s not so easy. The jail would need to make arrangements for inmates to go to other facilities, but if no more money is found, it is unlikely there will be places for them to go.

The county will not cut corrections officers without a proportional drop in inmates, Lebel said. And he has little opportunity to set inmates free.

On Tuesday, for instance, Lebel had about 156 inmates. Typically, only about one-third were convicted and were available for furloughs that could let them go free early. And of those convicted inmates, many help keep the jail running by preparing food or cleaning the jail.

“I don’t know what we’d do,” Lebel said.

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