AUGUSTA — The Somerset County Jail’s recent decision to no longer board inmates from other counties may end up testing the resolve of state officials to force their will upon counties, and the counties’ will to fight back.

The decision has officials grappling with the question of who has final say over those issues.

“Currently, the system is in transition,” said Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, who oversees the county jail in Augusta. “We have competing interest at times.”

Liberty, who also serves on the state Board of Corrections that was created to oversee the county correctional system, said he doesn’t see any significant impact on the local jail because its excess inmates are typically sent to Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

But the bigger issue is one of statewide significance, he said.

Liberty said state law gives the Commissioner of Corrections, currently Joseph Ponte, ultimate authority over inmate movement.

“He hasn’t exercised that authority yet,” Liberty said. “Some of this may test the statute and where the authority lies.”

The Somerset County Jail has closed down an entire pod and announced it will no longer accept inmates from other counties, Jail Administrator Maj. David Allen said. That means inmates from Aroostook, Franklin and Waldo counties that previously boarded inmates for $22 per day in Somerset must now take inmates to the Cumberland County Jail in Portland or Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

Somerset County will continue to swap inmates from other counties for safety or other reasons and accept federal inmates, for which the county is paid $93 a day.

York County also announced several months ago that it would no longer board out-of-county prisoners. That leaves just Two Bridges and Cumberland County jails to ease the burden of 11 other jails statewide.

Somerset County Jail officials said Wednesday the decision was based on the state’s failure to follow through with additional revenue promised during the 2008 process spearheaded by then-Gov. John Baldacci to unify state and county correctional systems. Somerset county officials say the county continues to pay an unfair share of jail operations cost and bond payments for construction of the new jail.

Liberty said the idea behind unification was to reduce costs by reducing recidivism and getting the most out of jails and programs. The law locked the tax rate for county jails at 2007 levels.

“The state was supposed to pay the difference,” Liberty said. “They were supposed to invest in capital improvements. That hasn’t happened.”

In addition, the state Board of Corrections is struggling to fill an $800,000 budget deficit, which promises to only add to the burden on county administrators.

The burden is already heavier in Somerset and York counties, which are still repaying bonds they took on to build new jails.

“Somerset and York have locally elected sheriffs and county administrators,” Liberty said. “They have to take care of local residents. It’s not always easy to put the system first. Everyone is self-interested in some way.”

The Board of Corrections has called in a specialist from the National Institute of Corrections to analyze the entire system and each individual facility, Liberty said. The board also has hired a financial analyst to look at each facility that reports to the group monthly.

“We recognize the legislature has very limited funds, and has in the last few years,” Liberty said. “The fiscal crisis trickles down to the counties.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

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