SKOWHEGAN — It’s not illegal for Somerset County to use revenue from boarding federal prisoners to pay off debt from the construction of the Somerset County Jail.
That is part of a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the county against the state Board of Corrections for payment of more than $280,000 the county says it is owed for operating the jail.
County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi on Tuesday called the court ruling a victory. Maine Supreme Court Justice Donald Alexander, presiding over the case in superior court, issued the decision Monday.
“We’re very pleased with the decision; we want to move forward,” DiBlasi said. “We feel the judge protected the taxpayers, protected the federal board money for us to pay the jail debt. The judge said no law prohibits Somerset County from using the federal board to pay down jail debt.”
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black, who represented the Board of Corrections, said the board would abide by the judge’s decision. The board had argued that it’s illegal for the county to use the federal boarding money to pay off jail debt.
“I think Somerset County would certainly call it a victory,” Black said Tuesday. “I would not call it a victory for the Board of Corrections, but it’s a decision by the judge and whether or not the board wants to appeal it is a decision they will have to make.”
Attorney Michael Hodgins, representing Somerset County, said during oral arguments on the case Feb. 14 that state law does not specifically address the revenue question, and therefore the county was entitled to use the money to help Somerset County taxpayers by paying down the debt on the jail.
In his ruling, Alexander agreed.
“No law that has been cited in this proceeding prohibits use of federal prisoner boarding revenues to make payments on county jail debt,” Alexander wrote. “The Board may take appropriate actions to enforce commitments made in correctional services budgets that it has approved, but it cannot mandate that federal prisoner boarding revenues above budgeted amounts be paid to cover correctional services costs.”
Somerset County borrowed $30 million to build the jail in East Madison in 2008, and the annual debt bill is about $2.55 million. The bond is to be paid off over 20 years.
At issue in the case was the question of who has the control or authority to determine what happens to revenue from boarding federal prisoners. The case was an appeal of the state board’s decision to deny payment to the county for the third quarter of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Board of Corrections members said in April that the payment was withheld because Somerset County kept the revenue from federal inmates as part of its own jail budget and debt service on jail construction. The board contends that the money instead should have been sent to it to help defray the costs of the state’s consolidated jail system.
Somerset County filed the civil suit against the board in May, seeking to reverse the board’s vote. The Board of Corrections said all of the federal revenue must be turned over to the state to be used to offset the state’s contribution to correctional services. The county receives about $475,000 per year for the boarding of federal inmates.
County commissioners voted 5-0 in January 2013 to take the $93 paid daily for each federal inmate, using $22 as the marginal cost of running the jail, putting $18 into a building capital reserve fund and applying $53 toward the jail construction debt.
County officials, including Sheriff Barry A. DeLong, said Somerset County taxpayers provided tthe salaries, bought the meals, paid the electric bill and covered other expenses of running the jail in January, February and March last year without the promised reimbursement from the state.
It was a matter of cash flow, county officials said. It’s money that was owed to the county; and if the money owed can’t be collected, that puts an extra burden on taxpayers, they said.
After the Feb. 14 hearing in Somerset County Superior Court, Delong said that if the county were to lose the appeal, accepting federal inmates in the future would be pointless.
“I have one pod still closed now, and depending on how this goes, I might have two closed. I might close the whole jail,” DeLong said at the time.
DeLong on Tuesday said he was pleased with Alexander’s decision, saying it validates his position that the federal revenue comes from a contract with the U.S. Marshal Service and is “outside the purview” of the Board of Corrections.
“This was not a battle about Somerset County vs. the state,” DeLong said. “It was about protecting the taxpayers of Somerset County. The taxpayers of Somerset County should not be burdened with housing inmates from outside the county without proper compensation.”