SKOWHEGAN — The Somerset County sheriff and the county administrator on Friday called for support for legislation that would dissolve the State Board of Corrections and return county jails to county control.

Otherwise, said County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi, every town in Somerset County will face a 5 percent increase in county taxes. That increase, coupled with the expected reduction in tax valuation of the paper mills in Madison and Skowhegan, could mean a nearly 10 percent hike in county taxes, she said.

The new bill – L.D. 186: An Act To Reverse Jail Consolidation – also would provide consistent state funding to support county jails. In addition, DiBlasi said, it would allow Somerset County to keep all of the money it receives from the boarding of federal inmates at the East Madison jail.

While there is bipartisan support in the Legislature for returning total control of the jails to the counties, it’s an issue that does not break down on party lines but on regional ones, because some counties could see a sharp increase in property taxes.

“I’m feeling more and more like (jail consolidation) is a failed experiment,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “I’m all for efficiencies and the concept of collaboration, but if we’re not going to step up to the plate to fund county facilities at the appropriate level, I think local control could be the answer.”

McCabe, whose district includes the Somerset County jail, said the large modern jail could earn revenue by boarding inmates and prisoners from elsewhere.

MONEY GRAB CITED

Problems surfaced last year when the Legislature voted to give additional authority to the State Board of Corrections, a measure that was intended to pave the way for major reform of the county jail system.

The problem for Somerset County officials was that under that legislation, the county had to give 25 percent of the money it receives to board federal inmates to the State Board of Corrections’ capital improvement fund. That left 75 percent – above costs of housing an inmate – for the county to pay off debt from construction of the jail in 2008 and for tax relief, DiBlasi said.

Somerset County officials called the bill a money grab.

More than half of the federal boarding revenue is used to pay off construction debt and the bill negated $500,000 that was left over for tax relief to Somerset County taxpayers, DiBlasi said.

“The moral to the story is we lost a half million dollars because of (last year’s legislation) – this is going to translate into a lot of pain for every municipality,” DiBlasi said. “The point is that now they have a chance to rectify it with L.D. 186 because if 186 goes through and we get the jails back, we’ll go back to giving the tax relief.”

STATE BOARD LOST MEMBERS

Last year’s legislation was a failure, DiBlasi said, noting that in the one year since passage of the bill, Ryan Thornell, executive director of the State Board of Corrections, and two other members are gone, crippling the board’s authority with just two members.

“A year later it has not worked – it hasn’t worked for anybody, least of all Somerset County,” DiBlasi said. “They were making budget decisions. Decisions about where prisoners went and who took prisoners – those were all decisions made by the sheriff prior to last year. The BOC has been flawed since day one back to 2008-2009 when it was created.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, whose jail population is above capacity, said he has some reservations about L.D. 186. He said he will hold off on his support of the measure until the final language of the bill is drafted.

“Right now there’s about a $1.3 million structural gap in compensation from the state,” he said. “If the state walks away from that, immediately the property taxpayers in Kennebec County will have to fill that gap.”

Liberty added that with the estimated 35 inmates above capacity regularly at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, the county does not have to pay to board prisoners elsewhere. If L.D. 186 is enacted, he said, Kennebec County will have to start paying to board inmates, some of whom go to the Somerset County Jail.

“Under the new system we will certainly have to pay for boarders, so we might need an additional $1.3 million for boarders,” Liberty said. “We may be affected negatively; the property taxpayers may be affected to the tune of $2.5 (million), $2.6 (million) depending on where we go with this. Right now people and organizations are supporting the concept without really knowing what the end legislation will be.”

In 2008, the Legislature and Democratic Gov. John Baldacci authorized a consolidation bill that divided funding for jail operations between county property taxes and the state. The county funding was capped at 2009 levels, while the state would pay for budget increases. Local taxpayers still pay for most of the jail operations.

BILL GETS OFFICIAL BACKING

The Maine Sheriffs’ Association and the Maine County Commissioners Association have voted to back L.D. 186 to reverse jail consolidation. The bill, introduced by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, was referred to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety on Jan. 29.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster said the State Board of Corrections under last year’s legislation went from sending Somerset County $1.12 million a year from the operational support fund to $841,000 – essentially freezing the money at 2013 levels and squeezing the county’s ability to use the federal money as it saw fit.

“Because of the budget formula that they put into place, it absorbed our federal board revenue and forced us not to be able to return $500,000 for tax relief,” Lancaster said.

The result this year will be the 5 percent increase in county taxes to pay all the bills and balance the 2015 ledger, he said.

The Somerset County Jail has a capacity of housing 192 inmates when fully staffed. The current population is 160 inmates, 23 of whom are federal boarders and 30 who are inmates from other counties housed under the operational support fund agreement.

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

[email protected]