AUGUSTA — Kennebec County officials have just under four months to find $377,000 to plug a budget hole that opened this year for the county jail.
A long-term fix might come via proposed legislation that’s scheduled for a public hearing this week in front of the Maine State Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, and a shorter-term fix might come from Gov. Paul LePage.
But as state officials continue to unwind a relatively short-lived jail consolidation initiative intended to save taxpayers money and improve services to inmates, county officials are wondering how to address funding shortages.
“We need to get appropriate funding so we’re not digging ourselves into a hole,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said.
If that doesn’t happen, Devlin said, Kennebec County will be operating in the red for the first time that anyone can remember.
Kennebec County is not alone.
Eight of Maine’s 16 counties are seeking funds to cover shortfalls that range from $101,094 in Piscataquis County to $800,000 in Oxford County. The total for all eight is $2.92 million.
While county governments pay their bills from a county assessment based on property taxes levied in their own counties, county officials are restricted by state law in their ability to use taxpayer money to pay the costs of operating their jails.
In 2007, then-Gov. John Baldacci announced plans to consolidate the state’s county jails under the jurisdiction of a statewide Board of Corrections. The goal was to create efficiencies in the system in part by sending inmates from overcrowded facilities to those with space. That would alleviate the need for counties to pay for jail expansions. The move capped at 2009 levels what county residents paid via property tax to support jails. Budget increases would be paid from state sources — sales and income taxes. County taxpayers still paid most of the bills for operations, $62 million a year. The total bill to run the jails in 2008 was $73 million. By 2014, costs had risen to $80 million.
But the program failed to live up to its billing, weighed down time and again by disputes over money, authority and performance.
By early 2015, Gov. Paul LePage had announced he would not fill vacancies on the board, rendering it unable to take any action. State lawmakers lifted state control of the jails when they approved a measure called “An Act to Reverse Jail Consolidation.”
As complicated as establishing the statewide Board of Corrections system was, breaking it up is proving to be just as problematic.
While control of the jails returned to the counties, county officials are still operating under the property tax cap that existed when the Board of Corrections was active, and they look to state appropriations to help fund operations.
“As government entities, we’re all under the LD 1 cap,” Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins said, referring to the law that limits the growth in property taxation.
The jail funding restriction, Devlin said, “is a cap on our cap.”
“We’re the model of the success and the failure of the system,” Oxford County Administrator Scott Cole said. “And now because of the boarding fee thing, we’re probably under the greatest duress.”
Under jail consolidation, smaller jails could send inmates to larger jails with no direct cost, and state funding was supposed to make up the difference. Those inmates had access to better medical and counseling services at larger and more modern jails. The western Maine county was able to realize cost savings by reducing staff at the jail and passing that on to taxpayers.
But now, with a reduced jail staff, the county is compelled to board its inmates elsewhere. Oxford County’s cost for boarding inmates elsewhere in this fiscal year is expected to be $800,000, and it was a surprise.
Devlin said it shouldn’t have been.
During the 127th Maine Legislature, when lawmakers undid jail consolidation, they made provision for covering the cost of boarding inmates, Devlin said. Under the reimbursement section, he said, if the state funds jails to a specific amount, per diem boarding fees may not be charged.
“I know what the bill says,” he said. “I worked the bill.”
In fact, state funds, about $12.2 million, were paid, as they were the year before. Even with no state-run corrections board, counties continue to seek state funds to pay jail costs. And lawmakers overrode LePage’s veto of an additional $2.4 million to help bridge the gap between that $12.2 million and the $14.6 million the state’s sheriffs said was needed.
Because of the assurance in the bill, Devlin said, Kennebec County planned its $11.5 million budget, of which just under half — $5.3 million — is the jail’s. The budget year has nearly four more months to run.
“We can’t get into the supplemental budget,” he said. The Legislature approved that earlier this month. “We’re asking for additional funding in the next fiscal year.”
So there’s no additional funding for the current fiscal year, and there’s no apparent additional funding for the next fiscal year.
Cole said Oxford County can buy some time by tapping revenues from the Oxford Casino, but it’s not a permanent fix, and it’s not a solution available to other counties.
“There’s no bad guys here,” Cole said. “No one is wrong, and everyone is trying to do the right thing. But this thing is at the meltdown point.”
THE FLIP SIDE
In Cumberland County, Sheriff Kevin Joyce has a different perspective on charging for boarding.
Kennebec County has sent inmates to Cumberland County, as have other counties.
“We’re just an overflow,” Joyce said.
Inmates are sent to Cumberland County at a cost of $70 a day per inmate to alleviate overcrowding because it has space to accommodate them.
Kennebec County’s jail capacity is now 147, and it will be 168 after a planned expansion is completed later this year. While the jail population sometimes exceeds 168, inmates are transferred for reasons other than overcrowding.
“We have a lot of access for females and protective custody,” Joyce said.
If a county has only three female inmates in a pod intended for eight inmates, it can transfer the females and use that pod for eight male inmates.
Joyce said protective custody is used for inmates who would not fare well in a jail’s general population.
He said it’s not clear how he could house inmates from other counties in his jail and not be compensated for it. He has to manage his own budget, and this year, he said, he has a $1.3 million deficit.
“I have to find savings or revenue to come in on budget,” Joyce said. “And if I don’t do that, or come close, people will say I am not doing my job. It’s easy to say cut, cut, cut. It’s not so easy to do.”
Housing inmates from other counties brings costs with it, he said. The Cumberland County jail has a full-time medical staff and can take care of medical conditions short of trauma, but if an inmate requires hospitalization, Joyce said those costs go to his county. If the cost is extraordinary, it would be passed on to the inmate’s home county.
“If Kennebec sends an inmate down and something happens and there’s a lawsuit, we’re going to be standing out front taking the hit,” he said.
For Joyce, the Board of Corrections wasn’t the perfect solution for Maine’s county jails.
“(It) was a little bit of a shell game,” he said. While it did save some money and help out some counties, it could not reconcile the diversity of circumstances that exist in Maine.
“My jail is not like any other jail,” he said.
The big thing, he said, is guidance on what the real mission of county jails is.
If we’re going to use the jails as the state’s largest mental hospital and detox center, then it’s going to cost money,” he said.
Joyce has seen the law that Devlin worked on. And the interpretation of it, he said, depends on who’s reading it.
He’s heard people say that Cumberland County shouldn’t charge to board inmates, but there are inherent costs, and Cumberland County taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear those costs, he said.
“We didn’t get into this to make a profit,” Joyce said. “We’re just trying to survive like every other jail and do the best we can.”
This week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is expected to hold public hearings on bills that would eliminate the 3 percent cap imposed on assessments for jails and clarifies what a jail may charge to board inmates from other counties.
But some county officials say that won’t solve the problem.
“All counties commit to taxes once a year,” Collins from Penobscot County said. “Most commit in February. So if they lift the cap, it doesn’t alleviate anything immediately.”
But next year, counties would be able to push more costs to county taxpayers. Collins said if that’s the case, county officials can plan for it and work around it.
“No one wants to raise taxes,” Collins said. “We’re not the philosophers. We’re just the jail keepers.”
Raising taxes is not the complete fix, Collins said.
“If the state puts $12.2 million in our budgets (annually) when we have been operating on $15.6 million (annually) for three years, doesn’t that tell you there’s going to be a problem?” he said.
At the same time, some of Maine’s jails, like Penobscot’s and Kennebec’s, are older facilities and are not physically designed to operate with fewer corrections officers as more modern jails are, he said. So boarding inmates is a practice that will continue. Establishing boarding fees would bring certainty, but not necessarily savings.
“If I board 50 inmates at $50 a day for 365 days, that will be $960,000. At $70 a day, we’re looking at $1.2 million,” he said.
Like Cole, Devlin said the Board of Corrections was able to save taxpayers some money.
“We were able to get away from double-digit increases,” he said, “and we were being more efficient in using beds.”
And like Collins, he said taxation is not the answer.
Cities and towns are taxed based on valuation, and that valuation can change from year to year. In 2015 for instance, the valuation of some towns dropped and some towns increased.
Devlin has also appealed to LePage. In a letter he sent to the governor last month, Devlin outlined the counties’ predicament.
“It is my understanding when the Criminal Justice Committee met recently with the Appropriations Committee, they were not fully aware of the depth of the problem,” he wrote.
Devlin said he has an appointment with LePage on March 21. That could not be immediately confirmed.
The state clearly has a role in paying for county jails, he said.
“People are in jail because they are breaking state laws, not county laws or town laws,” he said. “And they are being tried by state courts. The state should be funding the jails.”
Jessica Lowell — 621-5632