SKOWHEGAN — Somerset County commissioners Monday night voted to downgrade three jail guards to reserve status in the wake of continued conflict with the state over the boarding of inmates.

Commissioners also discussed taking the whole matter with the state Board of Corrections to court.

Sheriff Barry DeLong said one of the Somerset County Jail’s four pods has been closed for renovations and will not reopen until the matter of missing payments from the state is resolved.

“Presently we don’t need the manpower because the pod’s empty,” DeLong said after a closed meeting with commissioners. “We can’t afford it; we’re going to save the money. The pod is shut down, so we’re bringing our staff down to meet that level.”

He said the jail will not continue to house as many as 60 inmates a day from other counties without being compensated by the state.

The Board of Corrections voted in March to withhold Somerset County Jail’s third-quarter payment of about $280,000 because the county is using revenues from the boarding of federal prisoners, in part, to pay down the debt on construction of the new jail.

After the vote Monday, commissioners Lloyd Trafton, of The Forks, and Robin Frost, of Palmyra, said the state is asking for money that they believe does not belong to it, and the only way to settle that is in court.

“My thought is we deal with it with litigation,” Trafton said. “I’ve talked to a lot of my constituents out here, even the conservative ones, and they’re willing that we go to court and fight the battle. They don’t like the idea of paying taxes to support inmates from other counties.”

In response to the state board, DeLong stopped accepting out-of-county inmates, even though the jail is one of four flagship county jails statewide, created under the 2008 jail consolidation act.

“We haven’t taken inmates since March 23,” DeLong told commissioners Monday. “Without being paid, I don’t believe the taxpayers of Somerset County can afford to carry that burden on their back.”

The Board of Corrections believes the federal money should be going to the state. The sheriff and the five-member board of Somerset County commissioners insist the county’s contract with the federal government has nothing to do with the state.

Lee Bragg, an attorney representing Somerset County, said Somerset is the only county that did not receive the third-quarter payment. He said the state’s position is that federal boarding revenues are intended to be used for corrections and the jail facility, not debt payments.

Michael Tausek, executive director of the state Board of Corrections, agreed with Bragg, saying the third-quarter payment is “delayed” pending review by lawyers from both sides, including Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black, who is representing the state.

“Whatever they are deciding to do — if they want to go to court — they have every right to the legal system as everybody else and I will inform our legal staff,” Tausek said Monday. “The federal money is supposed to stay in the jail. The money is being held. It hasn’t been denied.”

Bragg said a resolution passed by Somerset County commissioners in January set the stage for the Board of Corrections’ vote to withhold Somerset’s third-quarter payment.

Commissioners voted 5-0 on Jan. 3 to use all revenues from the boarding of federal inmates for operations and debt service at the county jail and not share the money with the state.

DeLong closed the Somerset County Jail to out-of-county inmates for four months last year, during a similar dispute over payments.

An agreement was reached in August, providing $1.12 million annually to Somerset County for use of available beds through the state board’s investment fund, and reimbursing the county about $281,400 in a back payment from 2011.

The $1.12 million is the annual amount Somerset County is supposed to receive from the Board of Corrections under the 2008 jail consolidation act.

A cap on local taxation to operate the jail was set by the Legislature at $4.86 million a year. The annual budget for the jail is about $6 million.

The Board of Corrections is supposed to pay most of the difference — $1.12 million — from the investment fund.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
[email protected]

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