June 19, 2018
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Sheriff: Flat funding from state may force layoffs at Penobscot County Jail

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross stands in front of two of the department's Ford SUVs in August 2012. Ross said that flat funding from the state may force layoffs at the Penobscot County Jail.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County commissioners will hear Tuesday whether Sheriff Glenn Ross will be able to run the jail on flat funding from the state without laying off a dozen people or more.

Last week, the Legislature approved over the governor’s veto a budget that funded the consolidated jail system at a little more than $80 million in the fiscal year that began Monday.

Ross on Friday said that cutting staff would be “a last resort,” but might be unavoidable. Other jails, including Hancock and Cumberland counties, are facing a similar dilemma.

Ross said that representatives of the unions that bargain for jail staff are expected to attend Tuesday’s meeting at the historic Penobscot County Courthouse.

Ross declined last week to discuss specific dollar amounts that needed to be cut but the sheriff said in April after meeting with Gov. Paul LePage that he had been told to cut $600,000 in fiscal year 2014 that began Monday, and $800,000 the next year.

Fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30.

Ross said in April that to flat fund the Penobscot County Jail operation, he would have to eliminate 12 to 14 positions. He said it would take $8.02 million to run the jail in 2014 and $8.3 in 2015. The budget that ended June 30 was $7.5 million.

“We’ve worked hard to stay within our budgets but counties that had fund balances with monies set aside that they were going to use to fix their roofs have been eaten up by operational costs,” he said Friday. “You can do that for awhile, but you can’t do that forever.”

Increases in medical expenses for inmates and labor contracts and the impact of the Affordable Care Act also are driving up expenses, Ross said.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, employers will be required to insure employees who work more than 30 hours a week. Ross said that there are “a number of reserve officers” who work more than 30 hours a week who will qualify for insurance for the first time.

The consolidation that brought the county jails under the control of the Board of Corrections was put in place in 2008 during the Baldacci administration. The amount of county property tax money contributed to the support of the jails was frozen.

Since the consolidation, the state has not funded the jails at the level required to operate them or created a fund for repairs, Ross said.

The jail also continues to be seriously overcrowded, according to the sheriff. The facility is licensed for 143 inmates and has been overpopulated 83 percent of the time over the last six months, according to the Maine Department of Corrections. Inmates housed at the jail also are accused of more serious crimes than they have been in the past.

No inmates classified as “minimum security” were housed at the jail during the month of May, according to Rod Miller, a consultant with the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance. Miller said in a letter to Ross dated June 15 that “any reduction in security staffing should be accompanied by a significant reduction in long-term housing capacity.”

Long-term is considered to be a prisoner who stays in the jail more than a week.

That would mean boarding out more inmates at a nominal fee per prisoner to other county jails when space is available, Ross said. Transportation costs to move inmates to facilities around the state would increase as a result of staff reductions.

Short-term inmates, who are incarcerated for less than a week, frequently are forced to sleep on the corridor floors of the intake area, requiring additional staffing to ensure proper supervision, Miller wrote.

“It’s a very serious situation that we’re in, but we’re not in it alone,” Ross said Friday. “Other counties are facing the same problem.”

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Monday that based on flat funding, he began the fiscal year “$200,000 in the hole.” As a result of that, he is not filling six open positions.

William Clark, sheriff of Hancock County, said that he was able to fill a $60,000 budget shortfall by contracting with the U.S. Marshal Service to board federal inmates at the Hancock County Jail. He also said that a vacant clerk’s position will not be filled.

All three sheriffs said they welcomed the creation of a commission by the Legislative Council to study how the consolidation is working and to recommend possible changes to the Legislature by Dec. 4.

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