AUGUSTA — The Board of Corrections unanimously voted to withhold Somerset County jail’s third-quarter payment, saying the jail was using federal boarder revenue illegally for county expenses.

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. said because of the ruling, jail officials are concerned that their inmates housed in Somerset County will be returned to the Franklin County jail. Under the consolidated system, Nichols would have 72 hours to find alternative jails with bed space to accept the roughly 30 inmates.

The board met with Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black privately in an executive session for about 15 minutes to discuss its legal rights and duties before voting to withhold the $280,442 payment.

Chairman Mark Westrum said he understood the legal advice and didn’t disagree with it, but he was unhappy that the board had reached this point in its relations with Somerset.

“I’m a little taken aback that it’s come to this,” he said.

At the two-hour meeting Tuesday afternoon, Board of Corrections members were often at a loss for words when asked to find answers, and at times sat in silence after hearing officials from various jails describe their money woes.

Officials from Androscoggin, Aroostook and York county jails also addressed the committee, saying they are having serious financial problems and do not know where they can cut costs and still maintain necessary operations.

Black said there is no precedent of a county other than Somerset using federal money received for boarding prisoners to pay off county debt service.

The sheriff and the board of commissioners have said they are using federal funds properly and insisted the county’s contract with the federal government has nothing to do with the state.

The Somerset board voted in January to use all revenue from the boarding of federal inmates for operations and debt service at the county jail and not share the money with the state. The Board of Corrections said the federal money was surplus and could be used to fund the expense of inmates from other counties in Maine to save the state money.

According to a report provided at the Board of Corrections meeting, because the board decided to withhold the payment to Somerset County, about 50 out-of-county inmates will need to be housed in alternative jails. It stated the Somerset County jail would be operating independent of the collaborative system by not receiving state money and not accepting inmates from other counties.

Sheriff Barry Delong did not attend the meeting. He said in a phone interview that the board’s decision does not shock him, but that it is unfair to the county, which already provided the service the payment was for by housing around 60 out-of-county inmates.

“I’d be very happy if they took their inmates and money and left us alone,” he said.

He said the Department of Corrections will need to find alternative housing for all the inmates the county is holding for the state.

“As long as I’m sheriff, taxpayers aren’t going to house prisoners for nothing,” he said.

The board also reviewed but took no formal action on the recommendation that Franklin County resume being a full-service jail instead of a 72-hour holding facility. It also announced that the Oxford County jail has made the same request for a status change.

The board said before it can decide about Franklin County’s request, the county must provide the board with a more exact proposed medical and food budget.

The recommendation that the jail be allowed to operate fully starting July 1 was contingent on Jail Administrator Doug Blauvelt’s report that he could operate the jail in the coming fiscal year for $1.59 million, which is under the $1,621,201 tax cap set by the consolidation law.

The county also will need to provide public notice for all stakeholders, or people who would be affected by a the switch, and give them 20 days to respond to the announcement in writing so their concerns would be on the board’s record. The board also would need to hold at least one public hearing to allow residents to ask questions and voice concerns. The board would need to make a formal decision on the recommendation within 90 days of the public hearing.

A handful of Franklin County residents attended the meeting, along with County Commissioners Fred Hardy and Clyde Barker, to support Nichols and Blauvelt while they spoke on behalf of the recommendation by the Board of Corrections working group to restore the jail’s full-service status.

Westrum said the board is facing a difficult situation with no easy solutions. He said he is concerned about less money coming into the consolidated system from Oxford and Franklin counties if they make the switch, which would compound shortcomings the Board of Corrections is facing from the state and curtailments.

“Where do we go? What now? There are going to be some really tough decisions made,” Westrum said.

Board member Douglas Beaulieu, an Aroostook county administrator, told the rest of the board his county jail has no designated or undesignated fund balance and is borrowing on county credit to pay bills. He said the Aroostook jail is unable to fund a needed 10-year capitol improvement plan and jail staff members are driving department vehicles that so old they are a liability for the county.

“We’re bordering on being unsafe,” he said.

He said as a member of the consolidated system, he is trying to be a team player, but the jail is in debt in order to pay the officers.

After further discussion, the board voted to give the county a $301,000 payment made up of a $116,000 fourth-quarter payment and $185,000 to bridge the jail’s structural gap.

Westrum said he believes Aroostook has legitimate financial needs, but there are limited funds to go around and he is not sure who deserves what portion.

“You’re not the first one to express a need. … I struggle with who gets what first,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
[email protected]