FARMINGTON – Taxpayers in Franklin County are missing out on thousands of dollars in savings because the county jail lost pre-release work programs for inmates, according to Franklin County Sheriff Dennis Pike.

In Somerset County, taxpayers are footing the $30 million bill for building a jail some thought would pay for itself by charging to bring in inmates from other counties, said Larry Post, Somerset County administrator.

Some county officials say these and other problems are result of the 2008 unified county jail system, and with new leadership in Augusta, they have made attempts to reform or repeal laws tied to the system.

One side wants to reform the system, and the other wants to “blow it up and start over,” Post said.

“I’m not in a position to go either way yet, but there needs to be some drastic action taken that makes the system comprehensible,” he said, referring to budget oversight and control of county jails by the state.

Supporters of the system, however, say that it has brought county correctional spending under control, capped property taxes going to jails and made new programs possible.

Kennebec County’s jail is developing a new rehabilitation program that treats inmates for substance abuse and criminal tendencies in a therapeutic community, said Robert Devlin, Kennebec County administrator.

The jail hopes to get more funding from the state this year to continue the program, which also brings inmates to Kennebec County’s jail from surrounding counties, Devlin said.

“We’re changing what we do; I don’t think we could have done it without the unified system,” he said, referring to the consolidated budget process controlling all county corrections services.

The unified system created the state Board of Corrections to control the budgets and missions for all county jail facilities, with some being reduced to holding facilities during the reorganization in 2008.

Counties recently submitted budget requests for the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years to the corrections board, which must approve all 16 county correctional services budgets.

The corrections board is working on changing some of its budget policies, but there are certain policies that are controlled by legislation, said Kate Snyder, executive director of the corrections board.

“There are counties that are happy, and others have some issues,” said Snyder, referring to the unified jail system and its budget process.

The Somerset County jail was built with the understanding that its $30 million cost would be paid off by revenue from charging other counties that send inmates to the jail, Post said.

The state did away with the charges when it formed the unified system, Post said. Now, county taxpayers are paying about $2.6 million annually to pay off the jail’s construction, he said.

Snyder declined to comment on bills in the Legislature seeking to repeal laws related to the unified jail system.

She said the system has saved taxpayers money, however, by implementing a property tax cap. Property taxpayers statewide have saved $8.5 million in the two years since the system was formed, she said.

In Franklin County, Pike has asked the corrections board to reinstate pre-release programs at the county jail, which had its mission reduced to a 72-hour holding facility.

Area town and county governments saved about $50,000 annually when inmates cleaned up cemeteries and worked on other public projects, Pike said. The board of corrections is expected to make a decision on Pike’s request this spring.

Some attempting to make changes to the county jail system are waiting for the new administration and Legislature to address the issue, according to John O’Connell, Lincoln County administrator.

O’Connell said he is supporting efforts to change to a decentralized or regional model for county jails. He said this change is needed to end the confusion and uncertainties involved in the unified system’s approach to budgeting and oversight for county jails.

Adrienne Bennett, Gov. Paul LePage’s press secretary, was unable to provide any comments on the county jail system.

LePage’s pick to lead the Department of Corrections, Joseph Ponte, is scheduled to go before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Feb. 14, Bennett said. If the committee approves Ponte’s nomination, he would then have to be approved by the Legislature.

O’Connell said he supports Ponte, who is currently the warden of a prison in Nevada that is owned by Corrections Corp. of America, the country’s largest private-sector corrections company.

O’Connell said Ponte appears to be open to looking for possible changes and efficiencies in the system.

“We’re ready for a different approach,” O’Connell said.