AUGUSTA — Kennebec County officials have just under four months to find $377,000 to plug a budget hole that opened this year for the county jail.

A long-term fix might come via proposed legislation that’s scheduled for a public hearing this week in front of the Maine Legislature’s criminal justice committee, and a shorter-term fix might come from Gov. Paul LePage.

But as state officials continue to unwind a relatively short-lived jail consolidation initiative intended to save taxpayers money and improve services to inmates, county officials are wondering how to address funding shortages.

“We need to get appropriate funding so we’re not digging ourselves into a hole,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said.

If that doesn’t happen, Devlin said, Kennebec County will be operating in the red for the first time that anyone can remember.

Kennebec County is not alone.

Eight of Maine’s 16 counties are seeking funds to cover shortfalls that range from $101,094 in Piscataquis County to $800,000 in Oxford County. The total for all eight is $2.92 million.

In 2007, then-Gov. John Baldacci announced plans to consolidate the state’s county jails under the jurisdiction of a statewide Board of Corrections. The goal was 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.

But the program failed to live up to its billing, weighed down time and again by disputes over money, authority and performance.

By early 2015, Gov. Paul LePage had announced he would not fill vacancies on the board, rendering it unable to take any action.

While control of the jails returned to the counties, county officials are still operating under the property tax cap that existed when the Board of Corrections was active, and they look to state appropriations to help fund operations.

Kennebec County has sent inmates to Cumberland County, as have other counties.

“We’re just an overflow,” Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said.

Inmates are sent to Cumberland County at a cost of $70 a day per inmate to alleviate overcrowding because it has space to accommodate them.

Kennebec County’s jail capacity is now 147, and it will be 168 after a planned expansion is completed later this year. While the jail population sometimes exceeds 168, inmates are transferred for reasons other than overcrowding.

Joyce said protective custody is used for inmates who would not fare well in a jail’s general population.

He said it’s not clear how he could house inmates from other counties in his jail and not be compensated for it. He has to manage his own budget, and this year, he said, he has a $1.3 million deficit.

“I have to find savings or revenue to come in on budget,” Joyce said. “And if I don’t do that, or come close, people will say I am not doing my job.”

Housing inmates from other counties brings costs with it, he said. The Cumberland County jail has a full-time medical staff and can take care of medical conditions short of trauma, but if an inmate requires hospitalization, Joyce said those costs go to his county. If the cost is extraordinary, it would be passed on to the inmate’s home county.

“If Kennebec sends an inmate down and something happens and there’s a lawsuit, we’re going to be standing out front taking the hit,” he said.

For Joyce, the Board of Corrections wasn’t the perfect solution for Maine’s county jails.

This week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is expected to hold public hearings on bills that would eliminate the 3 percent cap imposed on assessments for jails and clarifies what a jail may charge to board inmates from other counties.

But some county officials say that won’t solve the problem.

“All counties commit to taxes once a year,” Penobscot County Administrator Bill Collins said. “Most commit in February. So if they lift the cap, it doesn’t alleviate anything immediately.”

Devlin has also appealed to LePage, and said he has an appointment with the governor on March 21.

Jessica Lowell can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:

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