AUGUSTA — For the two candidates seeking the District 1 Kennebec County commissioner seat, the Kennebec County jail and its needs are central to their concerns.

Jeremy Pare, 39, of Manchester is running for the seat as an independent. He has served on the Manchester Board of Selectmen for a decade, and during that time he’s seen the county assessment for Manchester increase by $43,000, even as town officials have striven to keep the municipal portion of the town’s property tax bills flat.

“It’s been hard to pull it out of them (county officials) why,” Pare said.

As new person and a new voice on the commission, he said, he would spend a lot of time on the budget.

“How do we blow it up? Where do we put our money and start again?” he said. That’s the kind of thinking he said is needed to get ahead of the issues facing the county.

Augusta resident Patsy Crockett, 75, was appointed by Gov. Paul LePage in February to serve out the term of District 1 Commissioner Beverly Daggett, who died in September 2015. That term ends this year, and Crockett, who earned the nomination of the Democrats in District 1 in the June primary, is running to remain on the commission.

As she campaigns, Crockett said, she’s had frank discussions with voters.

“They know about the county tax,” she said. “I make no bones about it. I’m saying it did go up 3.6 percent, and I’m sure you can guess why. It’s not emergency management or any of the other departments. It’s because of our jail. They seem to thoroughly understand it and accept it. I’m not saying they like it.”

At $5.3 million, the Kennebec County jail and its administration is the largest part of the county’s $11.5 million budget. Combined with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s nearly $1.9 million law enforcement budget, those two divisions make up about two-thirds of the county’s annual spending.

The jail, which is chronically overcrowded — due in part to continued arrests for drug trafficking and illegal activities that stem from drug addiction — has plans to add 21 beds to an indoor recreation area to expand its capacity to 168.

Pare said county officials should do what they can to minimize the number of people who are put in the county jail.

“What can we do to reduce the population in the jail? The jail is considered Riverview West,” he said, referring to the Riverview Psychiatric Center. He said there has to be more that county officials can do to deal both with the mentally ill who are in the jail as well as those who are there because they can’t pay even a low bail to be released. Part of that would be creating partnerships with community organizations to help people once they are released from jail. He supports the continuation of the CARA substance abuse program.

“We have to deal with it holistically. That’s a really important view to take,” he said.

At the same time, he said he recognizes that the county is the front-line defense in protecting the community from people, such as sex offenders and drug dealers, who can harm it. Supporting the law enforcement division is important, and he would like to have a conversation about county law enforcement in the communities of District 1 without their own law enforcement.

If the county needs to hire more patrol deputies, he said, the decision should be driven by data. Pare said he’d like to take on other things as well, including implementing a county charter and increasing the number of commissioners to five while splitting the commissioners’ current pay among them. He would also like to see improvement in the commissioners’ communication with county residents, and that would include updating and improving the county website.

For the last two years, Pare has worked as a continuous improvement specialist at MaineGeneral Medical Center, improving efficiency in the hospital’s facilities and processes. He said he would bring that same kind of experience to the county commissioners.

Crockett, who has worked on jail issues for years as both a state legislator and a lobbyist, said the jail expansion will allow county officials to bring back to Kennebec County inmates that are being housed at county expense at other jails in the state. The expansion, she said, is expected to pay for itself in about a year.

Even with that, Crockett said she wants to see a long-term solution. When she was in the Legislature, she sponsored the bill that created the state Board of Corrections, aimed at consolidating jails to address a shortage of beds and offer property tax relief to the state’s residents. She said the program didn’t get the kind of financial support from the state that it needed and it was ended in 2015.

“This has to be solved at the legislative level,” said Crockett.

In the meantime, she said, she supports diverting people from the jail who don’t need to be there. And it may be time, she said, to look at the county’s plan for a minimum security jail that was set aside once the Board of Corrections was created.

The state has a role to play in funding mental health services, she said. While corrections officers at the jail have been trained to deal with mental health issues, she said inmates can’t get the same kind of treatment from a deputy as they can from a mental health worker.

“We have to be working on so many fronts for the jail.” Crockett said she’s working on contract negotiations with the deputies and serves on the state Claims Commission as well as the Workforce Investment Board.

“I have said from Day 1 that Kennebec County is one of the best run counties in the state,” she said. “It’s not like you jump in and find messes here and messes there.”

She said she thinks three commissioners are sufficient to run the business of the county. Of the state’s 16 counties, 12 have just three commissioners.

Kennebec County Commission District 1 consists of Augusta, Chelsea, China, Manchester, Sidney, Vassalboro and Windsor.

The election is Nov. 8.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: