FARMINGTON — Franklin County commissioners decided today to withhold their November payment to the Maine State Board of Corrections and to allow the sheriff’s department to negotiate a contract to resume sending prisoners to Somerset County if the state jail financial crisis worsens.
The move comes after the corrections board denied Franklin County’s request to reopen its jail as a fully operating facility last week. Correction board members said the state system is in financial crisis and needs Franklin County’s $600,000 it pays other jails to board out its prisoners while it operates as a 72-hour holding facility.
The state recently formed a study commission to find a financial solution for the 15 county jails, which have only 25 percent of the money needed to operate for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols said if the study commission does not reach a favorable solution in early December, he wants the county to have a contract in place for its prisoners to go to the Somerset County jail instead of one farther away.
Nichols said it’s important for him to have the contract negotiated as a back-up plan to use the “flagship jail” in Somerset County again if the study commission doesn’t find a long-term funding solution for the state’s jails.
Vickie Braley, deputy clerk for the county, said the board has not sent the county its November bill yet. The last semi-annual payment was for $315,288.
He said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find jails to place his inmates in after the 72-hour time limit is up, and the problem will only get worse if the jails are forced to continue laying off corrections staff and closing pods in order to operate at 25 percent funding.
The shortage, Nichols said, results in his staff spending more time asking various jails to take inmates and his corrections officers driving longer distances when carting inmates to farther away jails. He said corrections officers drive an average of 500 miles per week and his transport vans are depreciating twice as fast as they should.
“This isn’t ideal. Ideally, I’d prefer to have our jail open again, but at the moment this is our second-best option. At least when the other systems out there start to collapse, we’ll be in good shape,” he said.
Nichols said he recognizes that the Board of Corrections might not be consider the move legal, but said he does not consider it an option to continue wasting time and money by boarding prisoners at more distant jails.
“I’m sure we’re going to have some legal wrangling to do,” he said.
Col. Mark Westrum, chairman of the Board of Corrections, referred questions for comment to the board’s attorney.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black, who serves as the legal counsel for the board, said he could not discuss the resolution because not all the facts have been gathered and the issue could become a legal matter.
Nichols said Somerset County jail, which has been denied payment by the state by operating outside of the state jail system since March, favors creating a contract.
Somerset County officials have a pending lawsuit against the board for their payments, which they said were denied unlawfully, while the board maintains it has no choice but to cut the county out because it continues to break the law by using federal funds to pay down jail debt.
Somerset County Sheriff Barry DeLong has since tried to charge other jails for boarding out-of-county inmates to make up for the withheld payments, but the Board of Corrections declared the effort illegal and advised other sheriffs to ignore the bills.
The three Franklin County commissioners — Clyde Barker, Gary McGrane and Fred Hardy — unanimously voted in support of today’s decision; and Sen. Tom Saviello, along with Farmington Selectmen Chairman Ryan Morgan, voiced support for the decision.
McGrane first said he wanted to be sure the county commissioners only voted for what they are legally allowed to authorize. He said as a public official he would not support something that was contrary to the law.
Saviello said he approved of the proposal and that it would send a message to the Board of Corrections that the county will find solutions to their problems even if the board will not fix them.
“Will be there potential legal wrangling? Maybe, but I haven’t seen them do anything to Somerset yet,” Saviello said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252