A $1.2 million shortfall in the state funding system for county jails means that nine counties will take a hit and Franklin County will pay an additional $100,000 for fiscal year 2015.

The order from the Maine Board of Corrections to add the $100,000 to the $630,000 payment Franklin County expected to make has drawn a sharp reaction from Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols as the county hammers out its budget.

Nichols said the county doesn’t have extra money and has been used to prop up the unified jail system since it was created in 2008.

Somerset County will get $280,441 less than the $1.1 million got in the last budget cycle and Kennebec County will get $79,689 less. Cumberland, Hancock, Knox, Penobscot, Piscatiquis, Washington counties and Two Rivers Jail in Wiscasset will also be hit with reductions.

Franklin County has been paying about $600,000 into the system annually to send its prisoners to other counties, but the jail system’s financial analyst calculated the county’s payment to be about $100,000 short of the money it needed to contribute.

Nichols said jail has an account with about $400,000 in unexpended jail funds that has accumulated over the past four years. He said that at a state Board of Corrections meeting last week, he and Franklin County commissioner Fred Hardy were asked by the board to take $100,000 out of that account to pay back into the system.

The county refused to pay, so the corrections board cut the county operations budget, leaving the county on the hook for that same $100,000 to fill that gap.

“We politely told them that unless they have some authority or some law, that we weren’t going to do that,” Nichols said. “They didn’t so what they did instead was they subtracted $100,000 out of the operations budget. That’s a very slim budget as it is.”

The county commissioners and Nichols will meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to decide what they will do in response to the increase.

A budget analyst for the Board of Corrections found that since 2012 the county’s projected expenses have been running $1.2 million more than the revenues it expected to receive from state and county government.

Board of corrections and county officials are hoping the shortfall will be a one-time issue and the cash shortage will be fixed by 2016 when the Legislature passes its next biennial budget.

In 2012 the jail system got a one-time supplemental budget payment from the state but the system apparently never reduced its budget to meet the revenue expectations for the following years, said Ryan Thornell, executive director of the Maine Board of Corrections. The result has been unexpected annual shortfalls across the jail system.

The state doesn’t enter a new budget cycle until 2016, so Thornell said the board voted to cut back on payments to county jails in 2015 in order to balance the budget.

Under the state’s unified jail system, budget levels for county jails were capped. As jail expenses grew and the jails needed more money, additional funding, beyond the cap, was to be paid by the state Legislature and given to the counties by the Board of Corrections. Three of the 15 county jails — Waldo, Oxford and Franklin — were reduced to 72-hour holding jails. For prisoner stays beyond three days, the counties would pay to board out their inmates in other counties.

BUDGET ASSURANCES

As the board deals with the budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in little more than a week, Thornell said he hopes that the jail system’s funding crunch can be resolved in the 2016-2017 fiscal year when the Legislature has a new biennial budget.

“After meeting with appropriations we have more confidence,” he said. “They seemed much more receptive to the message we were delivering them.”

The jail system has been beleaguered with escalating financial problems since its adoption in 2008. When the Board of Corrections realized last year that it would be coming up 75 percent short on the money needed to get through the final quarter of the year, they approved full funding anyway in hopes of forcing the Legislature to cough up the cash.

The Legislature then appointed a committee to research the problem, and, at the recommendation of the committee, new Legislation was passed in May that overhauled the system and increased Board of Corrections oversight.

While one of the end goals of the new legislation is to fix the financial crisis, Thornell said its too early for the benefits of the new law to show.

“One thing a lot of people didn’t realize is the new legislation and all of the budget mechanism really don’t impact our system until (the next biennial cycle),” Thornell said.

Nichols said he has “verbal and written assurances” from Thornell that the corrections board taking the extra $100,000 was a one-time event.

Nichols said that the new system has already been a disappointment because he had to request another inmate transport van from the board, but was turned down.

Nichols said the van needed replacement quicker than the county was anticipating, because deputies need to drive it up to 1,100 miles a week transporting boarding inmates across the state. The county had been unable to house its inmates in Somerset County for about a year when Somerset County was embroiled in a legal fight with the state over federal boarder revenue and shut its doors to Franklin County. Unable to house its inmates locally, the county instead started to house its inmates in cities farther away, such as Augusta or Windham.

“It died a lot quicker than we expected because of transporting prisoners across the state,” he said.

HARDSHIP IN SOMERSET

Somerset County Chief Deputy Dale Lancaster said the Board of Corrections decision will be a hardship for the jail.

Along with cutting $280,000 from the allocation that had been $1.1 million in the last budget, Lancaster said the board intends to move the federal boarder revenue into its operations budget, making it harder to use federal revenue to pay down debt on the jail.

“It will make it extremely difficult to pay down debt,” he said. “Money can only be used in one place.”

The county is in the middle of a lawsuit with the board on whether federal revenue can be used to pay down jail debt. While the trial court ruled in favor of the county, the state is appealing the decision. The federal government pays jails $90 per day per federal inmate. The new jail legislation passed in May allowed for 75 percent of net revenue, which is the money left over once the expense of taking care of the federal inmates is paid, to be used for payment of bonds.

But Lancaster said the state board, which has oversight of the county jail budgets, has moved federal boarder revenues into its operations budget for the 2015 fiscal year to pay for jail operations.

The deputy sheriff said the County Commissioners will have to decide if the limited revenue the county can use to pay off the jail construction costs is enough to make it worthwhile to house federal inmates awaiting trial in Maine.

“This has impacted our operations. We housed federal inmates because there was an incentive,” he said. The Board of Corrections “has taken away incentives to house federal inmates.”

Lancaster said that while he respects Thornell trying to make the system work and he understands that there may be more money available in 2016, he can’t ignore his current budget struggles.

“The real issue though is we’re not looking at 2016,” he said. “We’re dealing with issues in front of us right now.”

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252

[email protected]


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