AUGUSTA – Sen. President Kevin Raye and other Down East lawmakers won a victory Friday when the state’s streamlining commission effectively rejected a proposal to close a state-run prison in Washington County.

The closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor would have meant the loss of 68 jobs, 63 of which are currently filled. Raye, a Republican, and the five other members of the Washington County delegation lobbied members with letters from local businesses and groups, including a letter from the Daughters of the American Revolution society in Machias.

The groups said they were concerned about the closure of one of the largest full-time employers in the county. Businesses that sell food and gas to prison employees would be hurt, and towns and local organizations would suffer because the prisoners often worked on community projects in the area, they wrote.

Members of the Streamline & Prioritize Core Government Services Task Force also received a petition signed by 855 people opposing the closure and dozens of photos of local projects that prisoners had completed. Corrections officers — in uniform, wearing stickers that said “jobs” — sat in the front row of the Appropriations Committee room as the commission discussed the proposal.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the facility is outdated and has no sprinkler system. As he worked to meet $1.26 million in required cuts to his department, he said, he decided to “do business a different way.”

With all the state budget cuts made over the past several years, he said, easy decisions about where to save money have already been made. Closing the facility would save $5.6 million, although the cost of upgrading other facilities to accommodate Downeast’s prisoners would lower the savings to about $4 million. There are 149 prisoners at the prison.

“I think this is a sound proposal for the right reasons,” he said. “To me, this is the best plan for the taxpayers.”

Ponte’s proposal drew a strong, bipartisan response from nearly all commission members. The commission, which includes current and former legislators and business leaders, is required to come up with at least $25 million in savings by December. They tabled Ponte’s closure proposal and told him to come back with new proposals — specifically in the areas of lowering prescription drug costs and money spent on overtime — because they don’t think the Legislature will approve closing the prison.

Former House Republican Leader Joe Bruno, a commission member, said Ponte didn’t lay the political groundwork needed for legislative approval.

“You need someone to hug you and tell you how wonderful you are and (then say) we need to close this facility,” he said.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said the administration should consider upgrading and expanding the facility, not closing it, because it is in a region where jobs are scarce.

Raye said the facility has been a well-run part of the state corrections system.

“I believe the commissioner exaggerated the conditions in terms of safety in the facility,” he said. “We have public schools that don’t have sprinklers.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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