Before we tear apart the collaborative jail system created just four years ago, it’s worth remembering why it was created in the first place.

Under the old “system,” 15 of our 16 counties operated lock-ups for pretrial and short-term prisoners completely independently of each other. Together they saw annual budget increases, which were approved by county commissioners and passed on to cities and towns. Local property taxpayers were forced to pay the bills, leaving little accountability for the decision makers.

At the same time, the state faced overcrowding in its prison system and considered sending inmates out of state, at a cost of $2.9 million per year, even though some of the state’s jails had available beds.

After a failed attempt by the Baldacci administration to take over the jails and make them part of the Department of Corrections, the counties worked out a compromise.

Jails would remain county operations, but the property tax expenditures would be frozen at 2008 levels. The rest would be covered by state general fund revenues, and those increases would be moderated by a state Board of Corrections, which would view the 15 jails as a system, and look for ways to control costs.

By 2011, the collaborative approach had avoided $16.5 million in property tax increases, while requiring only $8 million in general fund spending, saving taxpayers $8.5 million. The savings came from treating jails as a system and managing bed space with efficiency in mind. Construction projects were canceled, facilities consolidated and costs shared.

This has not always gone over well with the county governments, which preferred having all the control as long as municipal property taxpayers foot the bill. Since last year, they have fought to undermine the system, using the board to carve out more control for the county governments.

Now Somerset County has announced that it will no longer accept inmates from other jails at the rates set by the state board.

It’s easy to see where this is headed. If more counties follow Somerset’s lead, the system will not be able to function, and we will be where we were as a state in 2007. While some county officials might like the sound of that, property taxpayers should be very concerned.

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