AUGUSTA — A Department of Corrections report to the Legislature is recommending sweeping changes in how the state’s county jails are managed and funded, including the creation of three regional jail authorities for northern, southern and coastal areas, saving the state a projected $10 million a year, initially.

Each region would include jails in multiple counties and would be managed by a local jail authority but overseen at the state level by a new Maine Jail Commission, according to the report that was requested by the Legislature in 2017.

How county jails should be funded and managed has been a longstanding issue for the Legislature, and Republican Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly said that if the state is going to fund county jails it also should manage them under the Department of Corrections. The report notes the state could close one to two jails in each region.

A spreadsheet accompanying the report appears to reflect the closing of five county jails, including those in Androscoggin, Franklin, Oxford, Piscataquis and Washington counties.

In 2017, LePage asked lawmakers to cut about $16 million in state funding for county jails as part of requested changes to a budget proposal that was ultimately rejected by the Legislature.

County jails are currently funded partly by the state and partly by property taxpayers in each county, although the amount local taxes can be raised to support jails is capped at a 4 percent increase a year.

In all the state has 15 jails, with Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties sharing the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

In 2017 it cost $87 million to operate county jails, with the state covering about $15.3 million of those costs. The report estimates consolidation could save as much as $10 million a year in staffing costs, but also notes those savings would diminish over time.

“The regional, or multi-county approach has the potential to lower facility, staffing and purchasing costs, improve delivery of services, improve bed space utilization and boarding rate issues, while positively impacting public safety,” the report states. “This is a fiscally responsible approach that reflects the need for authority by granting powers, including that of imposing penalties upon involved stakeholders who act with disregard for the mandates directed by the Maine Jail Commission.”

State Rep. Martin Grohman, an independent from Biddeford and a member of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which has jurisdiction over both county jails and the Department of Corrections, said Monday there were parts of the proposal that made sense as it looked to ensure efficiencies in government by keeping the jails left open as full as possible. “It’s a lot more efficient to have a full hotel, so to speak,” Grohman said.

But Grohman also voiced concern about creating a new commission and said that commission should be made up of more than just appointees from the governor’s office.

“That offers only one viewpoint. We need more voices to make sure we are not taking a partisan approach to decision making,” Grohman said. He also noted he had met with LePage and believed the governor was flexible to the composition of the proposed commission, although, so far there has been no legislation introduced to create the new entity or consolidation system.

State funding for county jails expires at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, as the Legislature only provided jail funding for one fiscal year in its most recent two-year budget passed in 2017.

Disagreement over jail funding has been a near-perennial issue at the Legislature. Lawmakers often seek to protect the jails in their districts, and disagreements persist over whether the county or the state should bear the costs of incarcerating jail inmates, who are generally serving short sentences or awaiting disposition of their court cases.

Other members of the committee Monday lamented a lack of communication from corrections officials on the proposal.

“They left it on our desks without so much as a letter,” said Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland.

A call to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick was not returned Monday.

In 2008, a state law change sought to consolidate jail operations, creating a board that was meant to find efficiencies between the state’s jail and prison system. But in 2015, LePage derailed the board by refusing to appoint or reappoint its members, leaving it without enough members to take any actions, essentially returning control of jail operations to county sheriffs.

LePage has previously said that county jails in Maine should either be funded and run by the state or funded and run by the county, as the current system leaves too much room for duplication.

“I don’t care who runs it,” LePage said in 2015. “I don’t care if it comes back to the county, I don’t care if it’s (run by) the state. But you cannot have two bosses.”

The latest report by the department also suggests a new collaborative effort would yield better results for inmates as well, but the plan won’t work without cooperation from at all levels of government.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said the report is unclear in that it suggests his jail, which serves the state’s second largest metropolitan area in the cities of Lewiston and Auburn and its surrounding towns, would be closed but it also suggests the state would still have 15 jails spread through three regions. Samson said the report also may be a simple attempt to satisfy a legislative mandate that Department of Corrections report back to the Legislature on the issue. But Samson, who first saw the report on Thursday, said the sweeping changes proposed in the report caught him and others off guard.

“It looks like it’s a reinvention of the (Board of Corrections) model which failed and we are still trying to recover from,” Samson said. He said the report doesn’t consider any of the practical or logistical issues of transporting prisoners or suspects to and from jail and the courts of jurisdiction noting those costs would be pushed onto county and municipal taxpayers. He said smaller towns with only one or two police officers also would be put into the difficult situation of having to transport those who have been arrested greater distances, taking the officer off his local beat longer.

“On a Friday night when we are normally funneling say 30 arrests that’s going to be 30 trips to Cumberland (County) or something,” Samson said. He said prisoner rights also would be impacted, and with bills now before the Legislature that would shore up rights for in-person visits, the two policies would clearly be in conflict.

Samson said his jail, which has space for 160 prisoners, costs about $4.7 million a year to operate with about $1.3 million being funded by the state and the balance paid for by local property taxes. Consolidating jails or closing them also can be a political challenge when lawmakers will work to protect not only taxpayers but jobs in their districts, like the 55 jobs at Androscoggin County’s jail, Samson said.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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