FARMINGTON — Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. said he plans to withhold the Franklin County jail’s upcoming $314,000 semi-annual payment to the state if it does not address complaints that the consolidated system is wasting county time and financial resources in an already-rough economy.

He is also helping to organize a protest on Wednesday of the county jail’s diminished status as a 72-hour holding facility.

He said if withholding the payment doesn’t work he is considering hiring personnel and making the jail a fully functioning facility without the state’s permission. The payment from Franklin County is due to the Board of Corrections by April 15.

Nichols said he plans to hold the protest at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the parking lot outside the Farmington courthouse. The protest is being organized on a Facebook page administered by his wife and son.

The change in the jail’s status from fully operational, passed five years ago by the Legislature, was supposed to lead to decreased operating costs and improved coordination between counties.

County officials, however, said the system costs the county more money now, mainly through additional transportation costs. This year, Nichols said, the county has spent $125,000 in additional transportation costs, because while Franklin County’s jail is down the road from the courthouse, Franklin prisoners in Somerset County need to be driven 30 miles to their court appearances in Farmington.

The additional mileage alone is costly to the county, but the increased distance also means increased hours that officers need to be paid for transporting prisoners.

The county is projected to spend $1.1 million in jail operational costs this year and pay around $600,000 in two semi-annual payments to the state. Nichols said taxpayers are paying the state to operate a facility that doesn’t function as a proper jail, costs $125,000 in additional transportation costs and places inmates in jails that are unnecessarily far from their defense lawyers and families. Franklin County municipalities also saved about $50,000 per year in labor from inmates who were serving sentences within the county.

The sheriff said he decided to hold the demonstration after last week’s county commissioners meeting, at which budget committee members expressed frustration with the jail’s status. He said the purpose of the rally is to send a clear signal to Augusta that the system is broken and needs to be changed.

Around 600 users have joined the Facebook group “Give Franklin County our Jail Back,” which is administered by Lorna Nichols and Scott Nichols Jr.

“I think it really shows community support and how they are sick of the state of Maine getting in county business,” he said.

About 30,000 people live in Franklin County.

At the protest, he intends to speak to the crowd and explain what his plan is to address the problems with the jail.

Ryan Morgan, Farmington Board of Selectman chairman, said that while he was not the organizer for the rally, he has been encouraging people to attend.

Morgan initiated the discussion of protesting the jail’s status at the county commissioner meeting last week. He said the county should reinstate the jail to its full-service status without state permission and see whether anyone from Augusta tries to stop it.

He said after unsuccessfully trying to change the status of the jail through the Legislature and the Board of Corrections, the county should take matters into its own hands.

In the past few weeks, the dispute between the state and the jail system flared again in both Somerset and Franklin counties with Somerset County refusing to take more inmates and a legislative committee unanimously voting down a bill to reinstate the Franklin County jail to its full status.

The Board of Corrections voted in March to withhold the Somerset County Jail’s third-quarter payment of about $280,000 because the county is using revenue from the boarding of federal prisoners partly to pay down debt for construction of the new jail instead of sending the money to the state.

In response, Somerset County Sheriff Barry DeLong stopped accepting out-of-county inmates.

DeLong also closed the Somerset County Jail to out-of-county inmates for four months last year during a similar dispute with the Board of Corrections about payments to the sheriff’s department.

Morgan said Franklin County officials should take DeLong and the ongoing dispute in Somerset County as examples.

“If he can say, ‘We’re closed,’ why can’t we say, ‘We’re open?'” he said.

Nichols said he doesn’t blame Somerset County for refusing to take Franklin County inmates, but now his department is spending time calling other, more distant jails to accept their inmates who are past the time limit.

The Facebook page promoting the rally provides contact information for Board of Corrections members and state senators and representatives from the committee that rejected the bill along with a link to the governor’s website where people can submit complaints and suggestions. Template letters also are posted on the Facebook page that group members can use to send letters to the listed officials.

Under current legislation, the Franklin County jail serves as a holding facility which transfers its inmates to Somerset County or one of the other three flagship county jails that take prisoners on a long-term basis. The plan was created under the 2008 statewide jail consolidation law.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
[email protected]