SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Somerset County can use money it receives for boarding federal prisoners to pay off debt it incurred when it built its new jail, a judge decided last week.
The argument started in 2013, when the Board of Corrections refused to pay Somerset County its anticipated third-quarter payment for the fiscal year. The county later brought a lawsuit saying it was owed more than $280,000 toward jail operations.
The Board of Corrections withheld the money because the county didn’t use all the proceeds it took in from boarding federal inmates to support correctional services. Instead, the county, which had built a new jail that opened in 2009, allocated some of the federal money to offset bond payments and keep taxes down.
In a civil court decision issued Feb. 21, Maine Supreme Court Justice Donald Alexander ruled that there’s no law prohibiting the use of federal inmate boarding revenue to make jail debt payments, going against the Board of Corrections decision.
Alexander’s decision also says the county should have spent the full amount of federal prisoner boarding revenue it budgeted to cover correctional services costs. The county had budgeted nearly $496,000 in federal revenue toward correctional services. However, it later anticipated only spending $373,000.
The board would have been right to step in at that point, the judge said. The board overreached when it withheld payments and prohibited use of any and all federal prisoner boarding revenues for debt payments, Alexander said.
That doesn’t mean Somerset County is free to use federal boarding fees for anything it chooses, Alexander points out.
The decision means that the Board of Corrections can’t mandate what happens to federal prisoner revenue beyond what’s budgeted, but can ensure that the counties meet the obligations for corrections they lay out in their budgets.
The Board of Corrections could still appeal the decision.
Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci said Tuesday that the decision also gives other counties some guidance on what they can and can’t do with revenue they take in from housing inmates for the federal government.
He said the board had questioned how Penobscot County allocated federal boarding money in the past, and that this case provides some clarity.