FARMINGTON, Maine — Franklin County’s attorney Frank Underkuffler will work with Treasurer Mary Frank to put together a fairness argument to the state to justify the use of community corrections funds the county has received since 2009.
About half of the yearly allotment of $132,000 or so the county received from the Board of Corrections has been used annually to pay about $67,000 for pretrial services for inmates at the jail, commission Chairman Fred Hardy of New Sharon said.
The state never reduced the 2.4 percent of the state’s community corrections fund it provides to Franklin County after July 1, 2009, when the county jail was reduced from a fully operational jail to a 72-hour holding facility for inmates. However, the state did not reduce any other jails’ distributions either, county officials said.
The issue over those funds arose when the Board of Corrections discovered Franklin County had a surplus in jail funds this past spring. As of June 30, the county had $500,000 in surplus with about half of it designated to reserve accounts, including one to replace the jail’s roof. It is also used as a contingency in case an inmate has a major medical problem and other related expenses.
The Board of Corrections reduced the county’s budget this year for 2014-15 by $100,000, and on top of that requested an additional $100,000 to be added to the $630,576 the county sends in annually to support other jails in the system.
The budget reduction alone will leave the county in need of funds from its surplus in February or March because there won’t be enough money to finish the fiscal year, Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. said.
It is also unknown if the consolidated system will continue to function if the state does not give it the $2.5 million that Board of Corrections Executive Director Ryan Thornell told commissioners in October is needed to complete the fiscal year.
In that case, Nichols said, the state system may fail and the counties could be back to running the jails.
“I think what we’ve got to do is keep what we’ve got,” he said.
The county is capped at raising $1.6 million through taxation each year since 2009 when the state established the consolidated county jail system. It takes about $1 million annually to operate the jail and the remainder is sent to the state.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black, Board of Corrections legal counsel, wrote in a letter to Underkuffler that “forced once again, with a projected budget deficit for (2014-15), the board sought a fair and equitable way to address this looming problem.”
Knowing the Franklin County Detention Center was running a surplus that averaged in excess of $100,000 each year, the board decided to budget an increase in payment for the county, raising it from $630,576 to $730,576, a move allowed under law, Black wrote.
No other jail had payments increased, according to county officials.
The board sent commissioners an invoice for $365,288 on July 28 for half of the yearly payment.
Commissioners rejected paying the first half of the additional $100,000 in August.
In 2013-14 the surplus was $68,006 and not the $100,000 the state indicates, Deputy Treasurer Vickie Braley said.
Nichols and Hardy attended a Board of Corrections meeting in June to ask for money from the state’s investment fund to buy an inmate transport van. The van was needed because Franklin County had worn out one of its two vans last year when inmates had to be driven around the state to other jails when Somerset County Jail stopped taking the county’s inmates after a dispute with the board. The boardtold Nichols and Hardy to buy the $40,000 van out of its surplus.
The pretrial service cost is factored into the annual budget and the annual community corrections funds are included as a revenue and offsets the expense, Clerk Julie Magoon said.
Each year, the county has to report to the Board of Corrections what the community corrections funds will be used for to justify the use, she said.
“If you have been accounting for how you have spent community corrections funds … that is a fairly compelling argument that we were not overpaid,” Underkuffler said.
Commissioner Gary McGrane of Jay said the issue is moot.
“They made a request. We denied it. That was it. That is the end. This is a moot issue,” he said.
Underkuffler said the county should develop a fairness argument in case the state tries to take legal action against the county over what it perceives is overpayment and try to get the money back retroactively. The state’s statutory point is pretty thin, he said.
The county’s fairness argument could be done in a positive manner, he said.
Nichols said he would like the state to allow the county to go back to the budget setup it had previously, and the state can reduce the community corrections funds allotment in the future for the amount above the $67,000 the county uses for pretrial services.