Kennebec County will close the books on fiscal year 2017 in the black thanks to savings in the county budget and a check from the state it received Thursday.

“We will not be in the red going forward,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said.

It wasn’t always clear that would be the case due to unanticipated bills for boarding Kennebec County jail inmates at other Maine county jails to ease overcrowding in the Augusta facility.

“This really represents a lot of hard work, not only on the county level but in the State House as well,” District 2 County Commissioner Patsy Crockett said Friday.

“I think they understand the issue,” Crockett said. “None of us wants to ask for more money, but we just don’t want to push the cost of jails on to the property owners. The state can come up with money from other sources, like tourism, but we can’t do that.”

At issue is the gap in funding created when the state dismantled the relatively short-lived State Board of Corrections that was charged with supervising a consolidated jail system.

Under the program, smaller jails could send inmates to larger jails with no direct cost, and state funding was supposed to make up the difference. Those inmates had access to better medical and counseling services at larger and more modern jails. And counties would not have to bear the costly expense of jail expansions.

The move capped at 2009 levels what county residents paid via property tax to support jails. Budget increases would be paid from state sources – sales and income taxes. County taxpayers still paid most of the bills for operations, $62 million a year. The total bill to run the jails in 2008 was $73 million. By 2014, costs had risen to $80 million.

But the program broke down and lawmakers sought to undo consolidation and lift state control of jails in 2015 when they approved a measure called An Act to Reverse Jail Consolidation.

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

Kennebec County faced a $377,000 shortfall this year because of an interpretation in that bill.

Lawmakers had said if the state funds jails to a specific amount, per diem boarding fees may not be charged. The state paid about $12.2 million to fund the jails as it had the year before.

Because of the assurance in the bill, Devlin has said, Kennebec County planned its $11.5 million budget, of which just under half – $5.3 million – is the jail’s, and it did not account for the cost of sending inmates to the Cumberland County Jail in Portland or Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

In budget negotiations that carried on past the end of the state’s fiscal year and forced a partial shutdown of state government, lawmakers agreed to fund $15.3 million for the jails including $3 million to cover shortfalls, Devlin said. They also agreed to raise the cap on the county assessment for jails from 3 percent to 4 percent.

Each county’s allocation is based on the average daily jail population for the year. Kennebec County has the fourth-highest population in the state. Kennebec County also receives funds to pay for the CARA program, the Criminogenic Addiction & Recovery Academy, which treats inmates’ substance abuse and reprograms criminal thinking that leads to committing crimes.

Crockett, who was a state legislator and a lobbyist for counties, said she was concerned as the fiscal year for the state and the county wound down without an apparent resolution.

“I think we’ve done a good job managing the money we have,” she said, “and putting in 21 extra beds at the (Kennebec County) jail is beginning to work.”

She also credits Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason for avoiding incurring costs wherever possible.

But this is not the end of the struggle.

Devlin said state lawmakers didn’t fund the second year of the two-year budget cycle for the jails, so county officials will have to go back and seek funding again.

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

[email protected]