Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to fill three vacancies on the state Board of Corrections has left county jail operations in a budgetary no-man’s land – the board last year was given more authority to control operating costs, but it does not have enough members to legally exercise that authority.

Without three members for a quorum, the five-member board can’t meet, so it can’t review budgets and craft a budget proposal to submit to the Legislature. Without state money, jails may have to cut programs or furlough inmates to cut costs.

In the long run, control over the jails could revert solely to the counties, but that would likely mean that the county portion of local property taxes would have to increase to pay for operating them.

LePage on Tuesday said he has no intention of filling the vacancies on the five-member board and does not want to provide emergency funds to eliminate an estimated $2.5 million budget gap for county jails.

“I will not take good money, good taxpayer money and throw it after bad money. That system is made to fail. It cannot work,” he said “You get the operators of the jails to make all of the decisions and then you send the bill to the governor.”

LePage said that whomever is covering the cost of operating the jails should be in charge of running them, and that the current system has wasted money.

“I don’t care who runs it,” he said. “I don’t care if it comes back to the county, I don’t care if it’s (run by) the state. But you cannot have two bosses.”

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, chairman of the Board of Corrections and newly elected president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said the system has been controlling its costs, despite LePage’s criticism.

When the state consolidated the jails in 2008, they cost $73 million to run. This year’s budget is slightly more than $80 million – the same as it was the past two years, he said.

“They’ve been flat funded and property tax cuts were put in place. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there’s been a significant savings,” Merry said.

Legislators will ultimately decide how much money the jails receive. The Appropriations Committee meets Tuesday to hear a request for a supplemental jail budget appropriation.

Under the 2008 consolidation plan, funding for jail operations is divided between county property taxes – which were capped at 2009 levels – and the state, which pays for budget increases. Local taxpayers still pay for most of the jail operations, $62 million per year.

Counties set their own jail budgets, but the board’s allocations to each jail depend on how much the Legislature makes available.

The consolidation was intended to help the state cope with an acute shortage of prison beds while also providing property tax relief, a key goal of then-Gov. John Baldacci.

“One of the core problems with the Board of Corrections, looking back, was an assumption by the counties that attending to their fiscal needs would be a priority in the budget process in Augusta,” said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, former sheriff of Cumberland County.

In an effort to better control costs, the Legislature voted last year to give the board broader authority to cut spending at individual jails. LePage vetoed the bill, saying it did not go far enough in concentrating decision-making authority, but was overridden by the Legislature.

However, the fact that he is not replacing the three board vacancies means it can’t meet for lack of a quorum, Merry said.

Amy Fowler, a Waldo County commissioner who resigned this month, said she did not intend to create a crisis on the board but felt it was time to give someone else who might have new ideas and new energy a chance to work on these issues. The two other open board positions had been vacant since the law passed.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

If the counties resume jail oversight, property taxes would have to be raised to cover the costs. But a state takeover would be cumbersome because the jail buildings belong to the counties, and sometimes serve other county functions, Merry said.

Administrators say jail costs have risen because of several factors.

Every time police arrest someone with mental illness, they are housed, stabilized and medicated at county jails, said Col. Mark Westrum, who runs the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset and is president of the Maine Jail Administrators Association.

Many of those people would have been housed at state mental facilities before they were closed in favor of community treatment, which remains inadequate, he said.

The number of inmates awaiting trial has also increased and is now almost three-quarters of his jail population, he said.

“I’m really sick and tired of the legislative and executive branch pontificating on this issue,” he said. “This whole thing is not something counties have done wrong.”

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said his expenses have risen in part because beds in the Cumberland County jail have been used to house inmates from other jails that would otherwise be overcrowded.

Joyce says he faces a $600,000 shortfall in his $18 million budget. His latest budget proposal would make cuts, such as eliminating the pre-release center, where offenders transition back into society. Those inmates often save municipal governments and nonprofit groups money by doing community work projects, he said.

Another option would be to shut down a section of the jail, return inmates from other counties to their own counties and furlough some offenders.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.