AUGUSTA — Kennebec County’s proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year would increase county taxes by 1.1 percent, but officials say that could balloon if the state returns jail control to Maine’s counties.

The county’s draft budget would spend nearly $11.1 million in 2016, up from $10.7 million last year. County Administrator Robert Devlin called it a “pretty uninteresting” budget with a 9 percent increase in health insurance costs driving much of the increase and many other budget lines staying flat.

But those projections are reliant on the state’s share of jail costs staying flat — something that’s in limbo as the Maine Legislature considers a bill from Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, that would dissolve the foundering Maine Board of Corrections and return control of the state’s 14 county jails to the counties.

Officials say county taxes could rise 30 percent if Davis’ bill passes. It proposes keeping $12 million in initial statewide funding to supplement jail costs, but Davis and other legislators have recommended phasing that out over time, which worries the county.

“We have to be prepared — prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Terry York, the assistant county administrator.

Assuming flat state funding, the county’s budget would require another $108,000 in taxes county-wide with Windsor’s share of county taxes rising by nearly 18 percent. That’s because of a $30 million increase in property valuation in the town, wrought by a Central Maine Power project that upgraded much of Maine’s electrical grid and went through Windsor. Benton’s tax share would increase by nearly 8 percent.

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In the rest of the county, 12 of the 30 communities would pay less in taxes because of valuation decreases.

However, all those projections rely on state funds. The state’s consolidated jail system, which was passed by the Legislature in 2008, is now in political crisis. Then, tax revenues used to pay for jails were capped at $62 million and the state promised to cover costs above that. Now, jails cost $82.5 million to run, but the state is only funding the system at $80 million, leaving the $2.5 million shortfall for this fiscal year.

Gov. Paul LePage has refused to fill vacancies on the state corrections board, saying the system should be put under full control of either the state or counties. The board now doesn’t have enough members to pass rules implementing a reform bill passed last year.

That has had an impact at the county’s Augusta jail, which is one of the state’s most overcrowded. In 2014, it averaged 173 inmates daily with an approved capacity of 147, and violence rose with 98 inmate-on-inmate assaults and 10 inmate-on-staff assaults in 2014, compared with 39 and six in 2013.

Davis’ bill, which is backed by the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, may be the fix required for the jail system to operate in the current political environment. However, Kennebec County opposes it, saying the jail would eventually lose $2.6 million in funding, requiring a huge increase in communities’ county tax burden to pay for jail operations. Exactly when that would happen is unknown.

The bill had a public hearing before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in March, and the committee hasn’t made a recommendation to the full Legislature yet. Davis said he proposed phasing out the $12 million in state aid over 10 years, but other legislators have suggested axing funding over a shorter time period and they’re still “arguing that out.”

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“They’ve got to do something,” Davis said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652

[email protected]

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme


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