AUGUSTA — State officials recommended Thursday that Franklin County be allowed to re-open its jail as a fully operational facility starting July 1.

Because Franklin inmates would remain at the local jail under the proposal, Franklin County would keep money it now pays for boarding its prisoners in the Somerset County Jail.

The Board of Corrections working group decided that Franklin County will be able to open a fully operating jail under the $1.6 million cap that it raises annually to operate its 72-hour holding facility and to compensate other county jails for housing their inmates, mainly Somerset County jail.

Franklin County currently operates the holding facility for around $1.1 million and disperses the remainder to other county jails.

Under the group’s recommendation to the Board of Corrections, Somerset County would lose money because it would no longer be housing Franklin’s inmates.

Sheriff Barry Delong said in a phone interview Thursday that as long as he is not required to house Franklin County inmates, he is OK with no longer receiving the county’s money through the board.

“I can run my jail just fine without their money,” he said.

Somerset currently houses about 30 Franklin inmates, he said, and receives about $1.2 million annually from the board to house inmates from other counties.

The recommendation to reinstate the Franklin County jail will be presented to the full Board of Corrections, which is scheduled to meet April 23. The board will have the final say in the decision.

The group met for several hours Wednesday afternoon with Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols and Franklin County Jail Administrator Doug Blauvelt to review research about the jail’s ability to operate.

Last week, a preliminary inspection by the Department of Corrections deemed the jail was in good condition. Ralph Nichols, director of operations for the Department of Corrections, also suggested there was a way to reclassify the rooms within the jail to board more inmates and reduce the cost per inmate.

Franklin County officials have said previously the jail’s current status as a 72-hour holding facility has been a drain on the department’s time and financial resources. This year, Sheriff Nichols said, the county has spent $125,000 in additional transportation costs. While Franklin County’s jail is down the road from the courthouse, Franklin prisoners in Somerset County need to be driven 30 miles to appear in court in Farmington. County municipalities also saved about $50,000 per year in labor from inmates who were serving sentences within the county.

In response to comments from the board that all counties are facing the same dilemmas under the system, Sheriff Nichols said the system is particularly unfair to Franklin County.

“We’re the only ones being affected by this conflict between the board and Somerset County,” he said, in reference to Somerset deciding for the second time in the past year to no longer take Franklin County inmates.

“The only option I see is opening up the jail,” the sheriff said.

Working group member Scott Ferguson said the board is not saying Franklin County can’t afford to run its own jail under the $1.6 million budget cap set by the jail consolidation law in 2008, but other jails under the statewide consolidated system will be negatively affected if they lose the $500,000 Franklin County pays into the system.

Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy said that statement confirmed the county’s suspicions that the state would not reinstate the jail because they wanted Franklin County’s money.

“We have assumed all along that the biggest reason for not wanting to give us a mission change was because the rest of the system needs the money,” he said. 

Working group member Bob Devin, Kennebec County administrator, said he was not sure if the board should make decisions based on pressure from Somerset County’s lack of cooperation.

“Do we have to re-open Franklin County because Somerset is not cooperating? Are we being held hostage by Somerset County? That’s part of the dilemma,” Devin said.

After an hour of questioning and discussion, Blauvelt said he was frustrated that the board was not taking into consideration the substantial research he presented them with proving he could manage the jail on budget.

“You’re just trying to tell me I cannot save enough money in my budget because you don’t know me very well apparently,” he said.

He said he was frustrated with the lack of progress made by the board despite his compliance with their requests for research and then again for additional research.

“If you’re trying to tell me that I’m wasting my time, tell me now … I’m happy to give you the information you need, but I don’t want to be jerked around,” he said.

Working group member Scott Adkins said that after months of deliberation and information gathering, they owed Franklin County officials some kind of decision on the status of the jail.

After further discussion, the board unanimously passed a motion to recommend the Board of Corrections reinstate the jail to its former status and allow Franklin County to keep the money it pays into the system to house its inmates elsewhere.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
kschroeder@mainetoday.com