AUGUSTA, Maine — Legislators vowed Monday to fix Maine’s ailing county jail system before it runs out of money this spring.
“We will work very hard together,” Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, told corrections officials. “Expect to come back. We’re going to go through it again. We’re going to be here a lot. We’re going to get it right this time.”
The vow followed a presentation from former Central Maine Power CEO David Flanagan, who led a blue ribbon commission that examined Maine’s system of county jails and the six-year-old law that created it.
Flanagan outlined the plan, giving the state’s Board of Corrections the authority to override the wishes of any sheriff or jail administrator and place inmates in any of Maine’s 15 county jails.
It also would also demand that counties submit two state budgets, for operational and capital costs, and manage costs in a single, unified accounting system.
“I don’t know if this will be enough,” Flanagan said. “I don’t know if this will do the job. But I think it’s worth trying for the next couple of years and seeing if it can be made to work.”
The system has struggled since the Legislature created it in 2008, freezing county jail spending statewide while promising to fund increases with state money.
Today, the state pays about $20 million of the system’s $82 million cost. The remaining $62 million is paid for by the counties through property taxes.
Gerzofsky and Co-chairman Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, then serving as the Cumberland County sheriff, helped shape the legislation that created the system.
“We have had this issue hanging over our heads for years,” Gerzofsky said. “We’ve spent an awful lot of time on this during every session since 2008.”
This time, he and Dion have cleared a place in their schedule for multiple work sessions on the issue. They will begin no later than early February, Gerzofsky said.
Dion declined to speak in detail about the proposal, saying he needed to read the 37-page report and its accompanying 32-page appendix before commenting.
Gerzofsky also wanted to read the packet, which he promised would gather no dust, but he said he’d heard “bits and pieces” of its findings. He said he plans to question how the system might be restructured to prevent individual counties from passing wage increases for corrections officers.
“They’re paid for on the backs of the state taxpayers,” Gerzofsky said.
Currently, each county sets its own pay scale, and wages vary widely between northern and southern Maine counties.
County officials say costs such as health care for inmates have forced budgets higher.
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 following 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.