EAST MADISON — The Somerset County Jail has stopped accepting inmates from other counties because of an ongoing battle with state officials about the cost to house them.

Jail Administrator Maj. David Allen said the jail will continue to swap prisoners with other counties for security reasons and will take federal inmates at $93 a day, but that’s it.

“The state system was using our bed space at quite a reduced rate, while the county residents were paying premium rate for their own inmates,” Allen said. “You see the citizens of Somerset County paying the heavy burden and after a while you just say, okay, enough is enough.”

Allen said the inmates from Aroostook, Franklin and Waldo counties that previously were boarded for $22 a day in the Somerset jail are now going to the Cumberland County Jail or to Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

There are now 125 inmates at the Somerset jail, down from about 190 a month or so ago.

Sheriff Barry DeLong said Wednesday he has closed down an entire pod.

Col. Mark Westrum, chairman of the state Board of Corrections and administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, said Wednesday that he doesn’t know what the state’s reaction to Somerset County’s decision will be. He said York County officials decided to no longer accept out-of-county boarders several months ago and no one was concerned.

“When York County did it, nobody jumped down their throats; the board didn’t take any particular action against York County,” Westrum said. “The whole system … was based on the premise that it would take four of the flagship jails to make the system work successfully.

“So I think it’s hard to go after Somerset County right at the moment until we get further information about the implications. Nobody went after York, so as a board member, I’m reluctant to go after Somerset.”

There are 15 jails in Maine under the 2008 consolidation law enacted by the Legislature. Four of them are considered “flagship” jails, or receiving jails, which are large, modern jails that can take inmates from other counties in Maine.

The flagship jails are Somerset County Jail in East Madison, Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, York County Jail in Alfred and Cumberland County Jail in Portland.

Only Two Bridges and Cumberland accept out-of-county inmates, putting a space squeeze on the other two flagship jails, Westrum said.

Jail consolidation

In April 2008, the Legislature, at the urging of then-Gov. John E. Baldacci, created a state Board of Corrections that would oversee a unified state and county correctional system and capped the amount counties could raise from taxes to support corrections.

The state was to pay what the counties couldn’t cover. The aim of the move was to freeze jail costs.

More than four years after plans for a new jail were approved as part of a state-mandated county jail consolidation plan, county officials say the county continues to pay an unfair share of jail operations and bond payments for construction.

An average of about 90 inmates at the jail are from Somerset County, and those are the ones paid for out of the county budget. The rest — about 100 inmates — came from elsewhere, including the federal government.

In Somerset County, the cap for local funding is set at $4.86 million a year. The annual budget for the jail is $6.6 million, meaning the state would pay the difference from what’s called the Board of Corrections’ investment fund, money collected from other counties, such as Franklin County, with jails that are now 72-hour holding facilities.

So where is the revenue that would come from out-of-county inmates?

Good question, Somerset County Sheriff Barry DeLong said.

“It was going to be a money maker,” DeLong said. “They built the new jail with the idea that if we could board 100 inmates a day — and we are — we could make enough revenue to pay the bond off and have revenue to help run the jail, which would have happened easily.

DeLong said it costs Somerset County $272 per day, including bond payments on construction, to house, feed and pay medical bills for an inmate.

He said the county is getting $22 a day rather than the $90 it was promised from the state.

“We’re housing their inmates — they should be paying to bring the debt down; they should be paying their fair share of the cost to run the jail and they’re not,” the sheriff said. “It should be $160 or $170 a day instead of $22. The taxpayers are paying $272 and (the state is) paying $22, what’s wrong with this picture?”

‘Painful to explain’

Westrum said he understands the county’s concern.

“I feel their pain — honestly,” Westrum said. He said Two Bridges in Wiscasset is in the same situation.

“I need more information; I need to understand the ramifications of the difference between their property tax cap and their budget capacity. The board is supposed to pay the difference, but that was only if they were going to hold county boarders from other counties.”

Westrum said Two Bridges has lost a majority of its revenue, partly because federal inmates no longer are housed there. The Department of Corrections paid Two Bridges and the Somerset jail a “marginal cost” rate of $22.96 a prisoner per day. The marginal cost is the minimal cost of housing, feeding inmates, providing heat, water and other expenses, but does not cover the other expenses, including bond payments, of the jails.

“The theory behind the state’s reason for doing that was, the pod is open, there are people in it, the heat is on, the lights are on, so to add inmates it was only a marginal cost,” he said. “I don’t agree with it, but that’s the method that was used.”

He said state law, not the Board of Corrections, makes the rules when it comes to jail consolidation.

“We built our facility preaching to the public that we could reduce both operational costs and assist paying the debt with our generated revenues — that lasted exactly one year,” he said. “So everything we told our public before the referendum does not hold true, its very painful to have to explain to the taxpayer in Lincoln and Sagadahoc, but that is our state government in action.”

Somerset County Administrator Larry Post said any change in the way jail business is done ultimately is in the hands of the state Legislature. He said before consolidation, counties were receiving up to $100 a day to board inmates from other counties.

He said the state now appears to be trying to save money on the back of the county.

“Nobody seems to have an answer at this point,” Post said. “We’re becoming increasingly frustrated and counties are increasingly aware that something needs to happen to either change the system of have the state provide the funding to make it successful and viable.”

Allen said the problem intensified the last two years when the jail came in about $300,000 under budget, but the county didn’t get to enjoy the savings. The state, instead, withheld its final quarter payments to the county.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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