The state Senate and House of Representatives voted Thursday to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage of a bill that gives additional authority to the state Board of Corrections, paving the way for major reform of the county jail system that also aims to address a financial dispute involving Somerset County.
While legislators hailed the bill, some Somerset County officials opposed it because it didn’t give the county enough control, or money, when housing federal inmates.
Somerset County Commissioner Phil Roy said the county would be better served keeping 100 percent of the money from federal inmates who board at the jail, not the 75 percent the bill calls for.
“At the end of the day, 75 percent is better than nothing — they wanted to take it all — but now we’re going to have to give 25 percent of it to the state, so it’s a state grab of federal money from the county of Somerset,” he said.
But outside of Somerset County, the bill was hailed as a way to solve a problem that officials had grappled with for some time.
“I applaud my fellow legislators for standing up to the governor’s veto of this bipartisan compromise,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, in a statement. “Maine can now address the very real problem of bond debt facing the Somerset County Jail. The transition to the unified jail system hasn’t been easy, but this measure will help us improve the county-state partnership and build on the significant progress that’s already taken place.”
The Senate voted 27-8 to override LePage’s veto of L.D. 1824 Thursday morning. The House later in the day voted 126-21 to override.
The bill becomes law immediately because it was emergency legislation.
“The new law provides much needed authority to the (Board of Corrections) and will better allow the coordinated system to move in the direction it was originally intended to,” said Ryan Thornell, executive director of the state Board of Corrections, Thursday after the votes were counted. “It is an opportunity for the county jails in Maine, and I hope it is viewed as such as we begin its implementation.”
Thornell said hurdles remain, but he looks forward to working the new five-member Board, county sheriffs and administrators in the coming weeks.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and a former Cumberland County sheriff, said the new law “mandates a significant reform of county government budget practices and provides needed cost containment, thereby reducing the escalating demand by jails on the state’s general fund.”
“This legislation also preserves the current tax cap on municipalities for jail service,” Dion said. “The Legislature today empowered stakeholder efforts to create the oversight and budget tools needed for to the successful management of a statewide jail system. Now we can move forward with a strategy to initiate a solid business plan for Maine’s jails.”
Roy and County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi remain against the new law.
“We feel it goes too far but the (Maine County Commissioners Association) and the (Maine Sheriffs Association) fear that if the bill doesn’t go through, we won’t get the $1.2 million from appropriations and the jails will continue to be in trouble financially,” DiBlasi said. “Fear is a powerful tool.”
Roy said the bill is just short of an administrative takeover of the jail system by the state of Maine.
“The sheriff still has control over the jail, but the Board of Corrections has gained a tremendous amount of power and direction over the sheriff of county jails,” Roy said. “They can actually enter into contracts on behalf of the county commissioners and the sheriff without our approval.”
Resulting from work by a commission made up of state, county and local officials, the bill was crafted to create a more controlled budget process that better anticipates cost increases, while providing incentives for counties that improve efficiency within their jails. It also establishes standards for accountability and creates a system-wide capital improvement plan.
Thornell said the bill provides an improved framework for budgeting and requesting any necessary appropriations from the Legislature in future budget years. The counties will get quarterly payments for jail operations, but the amount is never guaranteed. Every jail got a weighted third quarter payment because of the lack of state money to sufficiently fund jail operations.
“Our budgets have struggled to be consistent and objective and the new law requires this through required reporting and growth limitations,” he said.
The bill also calls for the state to pay the quarterly payments to the county under a compromise that allows the county to keep 75 percent of its federal boarding revenue — above costs of housing an inmate — to be used to pay down the jail debt. The rest — 25 percent — will go into a state Board of Corrections capital improvement fund.
More than half of the federal boarding revenue is used to pay off construction debt on the Somerset County Jail, which was built in 2008 in East Madison.
Somerset 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. The state Board of Corrections stopped paying Somerset County its alloted quarterly payments because the board insisted the federal money should be turned over to the board’s investment fund.
Somerset County officials disagreed and the sheriff stopped taking out-of-county inmates.
The county prevailed in a lawsuit earlier this year and a recent agreement with the board calls for back payments to the county and a reopening of the jail to out-of-county prisoners.
Funding for the county jails is delivered by the state Board of Corrections, which was created in 2008 by then-Gov. John Baldacci to consolidate the jail system. The board receives money from county property taxes, capped at 2009 levels, and state funds, which were meant to cover the rest.
Dale Lancaster, chief deputy at the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department, called L.D. 1824 a bad law.
“The law erodes the authority of the sheriff and comes one step closer to eliminating county government,” Lancaster said. “The sheriff feels that this bill hurts the taxpayer. If this trend continues the taxpayers, the ones paying the bills, will no longer have a say as to how their money is spent.”