Legislation given initial approval Friday that grants the state Board of Corrections more authority over Maine’s 15 county jails also would increase the amount of federal boarder money Somerset County is allowed to use to pay down county debt.

The majority of Somerset County commissioners oppose the bill, calling it a state takeover of the jails.

The county recently won a lawsuit against the state Board of Corrections for payment of more than $280,000 that the board had withheld, after the state said the county did not have the right to use revenue from boarding federal inmates to pay down debt.

The new bill, if passed with final votes, explicitly would allow the county to use 75 percent of the balance of federal boarder revenue to pay down debt, compared to the 51 percent it has been using for debt payments, Somerset County Commissioner Phil Roy said.

Roy said the bill’s final approval should void the state board’s pending appeal of the county’s lawsuit, and he sees it as a compromise.

“This basically makes our lawsuit valid. It means we haven’t done anything wrong,” Roy said. “At the end of the day, this piece of legislation is actually better than what we won in court.”

The county hired lobbyist Kate Knox, of Bernstein Shur, because officials were concerned about what boarder revenue provisions might be drafted into the law, Roy said.

Somerset County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi said while the county would get the right to use the federal funds for debt payment under the legislation, she thinks the county would lose more by the veto power that the Board of Corrections would have over the sheriffs.

“It transfers power from the sheriffs to the Board of Corrections,” she said. “This is a taxpayer paid-for jail that is now going to have somebody in Augusta now making these decisions.”

The bill aims to revise a 2009 law that created the Maine Board of Corrections to oversee a unified county jail system. The original law’s intent was that consolidating the jails would offer chances to find efficiencies to reduce the overall costs of county corrections.

The legislation capped money raised from county property taxes for corrections at 2008 levels, which totals $62.3 million. The state committed itself to make up the difference to meet the jails’ actual operating costs, but the state never has funded the legislation fully.

The Board of Corrections now has little authority, which was cited by a recent blue-ribbon study commission as one of the existing system’s main problems.

The bill would give the board power to approve the budget of each county jail, review management decisions about county jail staffing and the use of overtime, and rescind county jail employee salary and wage increases and funding for county jail expenditures that exceed levels approved by the board. It also would allow the board to withhold state funding or take over county jail that fails to comply with a board decision.

The bill has been given emergency status, so it would take effect immediately upon final passage by the Legislature. The Senate and House need to vote on the bill’s language again by this week before sending it to the governor.

Before Friday’s initial vote, DiBlasi said in an email to Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, that the county officials were against the bill because it was “a state takeover through the back door.”

Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who sponsored the bill, said everyone “absolutely understood what the bill was” and it passed in the Senate with discussion. The legislation has 30 provisions.

“Sometimes your county commissioners oppose something, but we didn’t hear anyone speak out in opposition before the vote,” Gerzofsky said.

He said the bill will not be an unfunded mandate because it would include $1.2 million already approved by the Appropriations Committee. The Legislature does not want to pour more money into a broken system, Gerzofsky said, so the additional money is contingent on the system changes being approved.

“With no control over the counties, the board didn’t have the authority to do things; and the Legislature would have had a hard time giving any money to a failing system,” he said.

Roy said commissioners have a host of other concerns about the bill, such as a proposed reduction of the Board of Corrections from nine members to five, which changes the composition to have less county leadership on the board. He also said Somerset officials are concerned about a section that calls for the state to enter into contracts on counties’ behalf that would use county money.

“The only people who can take county money and pay county bills should be county officials,” Roy said. “I’m worried they won’t have the time and manpower to research out the best price.”

The bill, L.D. 1824, was approved Friday 31-4 in the Senate and 130-16 in the House, but Franklin County’s entire legislative delegation opposed it.

Under the jail consolidation act, Franklin County’s Jail was reduced to a 72-hour holding center. It now is required to pay around $600,000 annually in boarder fees to other jails for housing its inmates. The reduction of jail services has been opposed loudly by county leadership, who said the system wastes time and money by forcing county deputies to take inmates to distant jails, then bring them back to Franklin County for court appearances.

Last week, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department traveled 1,003 miles while transporting inmates, according to the agency.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, said he realizes that the committee worked hard to come up with a bill that would address problems facing the jails; but he said he opposes the legislation because it does not call for re-opening the Franklin County Jail.

“I don’t think they took into consideration the empty bed space that we have in Franklin County,” Saviello said.

He said the bill did call for some changes he considered positive.

“They’re putting some teeth into the Board of Corrections,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252[email protected]