June 1, 2012

Board overseeing county jails holds line on funding

By Craig Crosby
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The board that oversees county jail systems throughout Maine on Thursday voted to maintain funding levels for the upcoming fiscal year, even as it deals with unrest created in large part by the state government's refusal to live up to its financial promises.

Board members, who had worked for months to cut 1 percent from spending to address a potential $800,000 shortfall, made the decision to flat-fund the state's 15 jails after a financial report by RHR Smith & Company determined the board could maintain spending levels without an increase in assistance from the state. RHR's Ron Smith, whose company spent months conducting an exhaustive study of the jail finances in each county, recommended against additional cuts to the budget.

"If you cut 1 percent, you're not showing the state the actual cost of corrections," Smith said. "You're not showing what reality is."

Somerset County Jail and York County Jail have announced in recent months that they while they will continue to swap inmates, they will no longer accept additional inmates, or boarders, from other counties. Somerset County officials have said the decision -- which has put smaller jails in a bind -- is based on the state's failure to property reimburse the jail for the extra inmates and bond payments.

The board's funding decision hinges on the state matching the $12.6 million that's been included in this year's general fund. Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, said that if the state were to not match this year's funding, it will lead to draconian cuts that would threaten to cripple the system.

"If they say no, then this board is taking a real gamble," he said.

In April 2008, at the urging of then-Gov. John E. Baldacci, the Legislature created a state Board of Corrections to oversee a unified state and county correctional system. The law capped the amount counties could raise from taxes to support corrections with the promise that the state would pay what the counties couldn't cover. The aim of the move was to freeze jail costs.

But county officials complain that the state has failed to live up to that financial obligation.

The corrections board, meanwhile, has struggled to cobble together a cohesive budget because of a diversity accounting practices within each of the county jails. Without a clear, confident picture to present to legislators, the board has been powerless when it comes time to defend its funding request, Smith said.

The board on Thursday also agreed to begin the process of hiring a financial analyst, in part to help translate financial information from each jail.

"The board has not gone to the state with a budget reality and the state has not met its moral obligation," Smith said.

In addition, the state also has yet to make the debt payments it promised as part of the tax freeze, costing at least $5 million over the past four years, Smith said. The state is unlikely to make up those payments, but the board needs to remind legislators of their obligation, Smith said.

"I'm hopeful you can use this as leverage going forward," he said.

Smith's audit also found the board has been deprived of roughly $150,000 from investments over the years.

"Someone's the recipient of that money," he said. "Let me tell you who it's not: the board of corrections."

There are 15 jails in Maine under the 2008 consolidation law enacted by the Legislature. Four of them are considered flagship jails, or receiving jails, which are large and modern and can take inmates from other counties in Maine.

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