SKOWHEGAN — An appeal of a February court decision that ruled it was legal for Somerset County to use revenue from boarding federal prisoners to pay off debt from the construction of the Somerset County Jail heads back to the state’s highest court Thursday.

The state Board of Corrections is appealing a Superior Court judgment that reversed the board’s decision not to pay Somerset County Jail a third-quarter payment of about $280,000 from 2012-13 from the State Investment Fund.

The board denied the payment on the grounds that Somerset County violated Maine law by using excess funds raised by boarding federal prisoners to pay down the county bonds floated to pay for the jail. The board contends that the money instead should have been sent to it to help defray the costs of the state’s consolidated jail system.

Somerset County filed the civil suit against the board in May 2013, seeking to reverse the board’s vote.

The Board of Corrections said all of the federal revenue must be turned over to the state to offset the state’s contribution to correctional services. The county receives about $475,000 per year for the boarding of federal inmates.

The board argues that since it is not obligated to make Investment Fund payments, withholding the jail’s third-quarter funds was not an abuse of its discretion. The board also contends that because Somerset County failed to present certain arguments to the board at the administrative level, it is barred from bringing this claim.

Maine Supreme Court Justice Donald Alexander, presiding over the case in Superior Court, issued the ruling in February. The judge said no law prohibits Somerset County from using the federal board fees to cover the jail’s construction debt.

Attorney Michael Hodgins, representing Somerset County, said during oral arguments on the case Feb. 14 that state law does not specifically address the revenue question, and therefore the county was entitled to use the money to help Somerset County taxpayers by paying down the debt on the jail.

In his ruling, Alexander agreed.

“No law that has been cited in this proceeding prohibits use of federal prisoner boarding revenues to make payments on county jail debt,” Alexander wrote. “The Board may take appropriate actions to enforce commitments made in correctional services budgets that it has approved, but it cannot mandate that federal prisoner boarding revenues above budgeted amounts be paid to cover correctional services costs.”

The state board is appealing that ruling to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black is representing the Board of Corrections.

Somerset County borrowed $30 million to build the jail in East Madison in 2008 and the annual debt service is about $2.55 million. The bond is to be paid off over 20 years.

At issue in the case is the question of who has the control or authority to determine what happens to revenue from boarding federal prisoners.

County commissioners voted 5-0 in January 2013 to take the $93 paid daily for each federal inmate, using $22 as the marginal cost of running the jail, putting $18 into a building capital reserve fund and applying $53 toward the jail construction debt.

County officials, including outgoing Sheriff Barry DeLong, said Somerset County taxpayers provided the salaries, bought the meals, paid the electric bill and covered other expenses of running the jail during the period in question without the promised reimbursement from the state.

It was a matter of cash flow, county officials said. It’s money that was owed to the county, and if the money owed can’t be collected, that puts an extra burden on taxpayers, they said.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter: @Doug_Harlow


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