‘We’ve already put water in the soup’: Penobscot County sheriff seeks panels’ help with jail budget shortfall

Board of Corrections Executive Director Ryan Thornell (second from right) and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry (third from right) met with Penobscot County commissioners on Tuesday.
Nok-Noi Ricker | BDN
Board of Corrections Executive Director Ryan Thornell (second from right) and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry (third from right) met with Penobscot County commissioners on Tuesday. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 05, 2014, at 6:49 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A budget shortfall in fiscal year 2014 and a projected shortfall for 2015 mean jobs are on the line, according to Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, who asked for direction from the Penobscot County commissioners and state officials Tuesday on how to operate the jail amid the financial storm.

“We’ve already put water in the soup — that is not going to save $350,000,” Ross told commissioners and visiting Board of Corrections officials during a meeting at the old Penobscot County Courthouse. The five-member Board of Corrections is tasked with running a unified jail system based on collaboration between the counties and the state Department of Corrections.

Ryan Thornell, executive director of the Board of Corrections, and board chairman Joel Merry, who is the Sagadahoc County Sheriff, listened as Ross, Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins and Finance Director Scott Adkins explained the dire financial situation as corrections officers and union reps sat in the back of the room on the second floor of the historic building.

The Penobscot County Jail, which has 78 full-time employees and another 20 to 25 part-time employees, decreased its operating budget for fiscal year 2015 to about $7.56 million, a drop of $291,611, based mostly on a decrease in state Board of Corrections funding, Adkins said.

The reduction, coupled with a projected 2.5 percent increase in costs that are based on actual spending this year, creates a $341,158 budget shortfall, he said.

Jail revenues are broken down into four categories: county taxes; the community corrections account, which is where work detail and other such monies are placed; the operations support fund from the Board of Corrections and fine surcharges; and other, which includes federal boarding funds.

For fiscal year 2015, the revenue projections are $5.9 million in taxes, flat funded from last year; $773,579 from the community corrections account, flat funded; $468,939 in operations support funds, a decrease of 26.5 percent, and $397,350 for other, a decrease of 23.6 percent.

“I continue to be overpopulated at [the] jail, and that is unacceptable,” Ross said. “We’re keeping an average of 177 inmates. We’re being budgeted for 143, and we’re housing 177. That is a problem.”

For June and July, the inmate population average was 183, even higher than the annual average, Collins said.

“It’s like a pressure cooker,” Deputy Chief Troy Morton said. “It’s like a pressure cooker for the inmates inside and the staff.”

With the high population, the jail is at critical staffing levels, Ross said.

“If we start cutting staffing [to save money], we need to cut inmates,” he said.

“This is a no-win situation for us, and by law, we can’t go over our budget,” Penobscot County Commissioner Tom Davis said. “We’re hung out to dry.”

Davis said commissioners and county officials met with employees to let them know about the financial situation and tell them the goal is to “keep everybody working.”

“We could have dumped more prisoners on the state and laid off employees,” he said, about one option to balance the budget.

Thornell said he understands Penobscot County’s financial situation, because it’s the same for the Board of Corrections. He said the plan is to ask the Legislature again for supplemental department funding. The board was given an additional $1.2 million in supplemental funding by the Legislators earlier this year.

“We knew going into [fiscal year 2015] that we were going to have to do that again,” Thornell said. “Our plan is to include Penobscot County in the supplemental funding [request].”

Davis asked how much the board would request for the county, and if the county did anything wrong during recent budget discussions. Merry said it’s too early to know how much the board will request and answered “no” to the questions about wrongdoing.

“I wish I could provide concrete numbers, [but] I can’t give you that guarantee,” Merry said. “If anything, I want you to know we understand the plight, and we’re willing to work with you in any way we can.”

He went on to say that “177 [inmates] seems unacceptable. If we can get that down closer to the 150,” the financial situation would improve.

Ross reminded commissioners that in at least two previous supplemental budget requests, Legislators have actually cut allocations. He said waiting until January “is the least desirable” solution.

“Are we going to live within our budget or wait on a promise? I need an answer from the commissioners on how they want us to operate,” Ross said.

Collins said Adkins would have the better budget figures next week, and Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci suggested waiting to make a decision. Davis and Commissioner Laura Sanborn agreed.

“The country needs to meet with their legislators … to have presentations when we have something to show them,” Baldacci said. “I feel there will be support if we can show them what we’re doing.”

Making cuts would only weaken the argument for more money in January, he said.

Ross said with the county jail working with so many different agencies, “Whatever happens here in Penobscot is going to trickle throughout the state, and it’s going to have serious consequences.”

After the meeting, Thornell said Penobscot County is not alone.

“We know there are two or three county facilities facing serious financial issues,” Thornell said, listing Penobscot, Aroostook and Androscoggin counties.

 

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Bangor