AUGUSTA — Following a meeting with Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday, Kennebec county officials say they hope a long-term solution to the statewide jail funding crisis can be found.

The week before, county officials also had testified before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on a bill that would lift the restriction on how much county officials can levy in property tax to pay for jails.

But in the short term, Kennebec County needs to figure out how to pay its $377,000 obligation for boarding inmates in other jails between now and June 30, the end of the budget year.

“We’re already in the hole for this fiscal year,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said. “We’ll just have to work it out.”

Any surplus that can be found in any of the jail’s accounts will be used to meet that obligation, Devlin said. But one-time money can’t be used on ongoing expenses, he said, because it will run out.

The funding problem has its roots in the state’s flawed plan to consolidate the jails, with the goal of saving taxpayers money and improving services to inmates.

When the jails came under state supervision via a newly created Board of Corrections, it was expected to create efficiencies in the system in part by sending inmates from overcrowded facilities to those with space. That would alleviate the need for counties to pay for jail expansions. The move capped at 2009 levels what county residents paid via property tax to support jails. Budget increases would be paid from state sources — sales and income taxes. County taxpayers still paid most of the bills for operations, $62 million a year. The total bill to run the jails in 2008 was $73 million. By 2014, costs had risen to $80 million. Even though jails have gone back to county control, they have not found a permanent way to replace the share of state funds that supplemented the county’s share; they appeal to state lawmakers and the governor annually.

When lawmakers unwound jail consolidation during the 127th Maine Legislature, they provided for the cost of the continued need of some jails, such as Kennebec County’s, to board inmates elsewhere. Under the reimbursement section, if the state funded jails to a specific amount, it said per diem boarding fees may not be charged.

Because of the assurance in the bill, Devlin said, Kennebec County planned its $11.5 million budget, of which just under half — $5.3 million — is the jail’s. More than three months are left in the budget year.

The state did provide the funding, but those jails that took in inmates, with their own budgets to manage, charged for their board.

And while the Board of Corrections, which already had been hobbled by board vacancies that LePage declined to fill, was dismantled, the tax cap for jails remained in place.

“One of the holdovers from the Board of Corrections is that jails are treated as separate financial entities,” Devlin said Friday, adding that they are treated differently.

If the cap is lifted and counties are able to levy a higher property tax, Devlin said, the effect on individual property tax bills would be minimal, depending on a property’s valuation; for a $100,000 home, it might be $3.

LePage’s office didn’t respond immediately to a request to confirm the meeting.

Devlin said the governor committed his staff to work with county officials for a permanent solution.

“The governor’s feeling is that if the state is paying, the state should have more authority over the jails,” he said.

And if the counties want to run they jails, they should pay for them, the county officials were told. Devlin said he’s hoping for some middle ground and a gradual return to financial independence.

“He was very positive,” Devlin said of LePage. “He believes the counties should be stronger.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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