Legislative leaders are pushing a plan to abandon the jail-consolidation system in place for the past five years and return full control and funding of the county jails to their respective counties.

Details of the plan, especially how much the state would pay to soften the impact on local property taxpayers, have yet to be worked out. When the jails would go back to county control also is up in the air, but Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Waldo, has asked that it be done quickly.

“At this point, most people would agree jail consolidation and the Board of Corrections has been a disappointing experiment and it’s time to get the counties back their jails and let them run them,” Thibodeau said Thursday. “I think the sooner we bring this issue to closure the better.”

The move to rescind the jail consolidation law comes at a time of crisis for county jails. Several face a combined shortfall totaling $2.5 million, which they hope to receive from the state through a supplemental appropriation.

But Gov. Paul LePage has refused to increase funding for a jail system he says is not working. He has forced the issue by refusing to appoint members to vacant seats on the Board of Corrections, which is charged with overseeing the consolidated jail system and allocating money to fund it. The board lacks a quorum and cannot meet.

FUNDING ISSUE WON’T GO AWAY

Legislators say it is too early to say whether the counties would be asked to absorb the funding shortfall as they take back control of the jails. Counties, which operate on different fiscal years, haven’t budgeted for such a sudden expense.

When the jails were consolidated into a single system in 2009, the county tax obligation was capped at the level they were paying at the time, about $62 million statewide. The state was supposed to fund any increases. But spending in the system has outstripped state funding, leading the system to request additional money from the Legislature.

Cumberland County Jail faces a $600,000 shortfall by the end of June and is considering shuttering its pre-release center, closing sections of the jail and sending inmates back to their home counties. If the county takes back the jail it could add $2 million to annual county spending, said Assistant County Manager Bill Whitten, though it also would be able to charge market rates to other counties for housing their inmates.

There is bipartisan support for returning the jails to the counties. It is an issue that does not break down on party lines but regional ones, because some counties could see a sharp increase in property taxes.

‘A FAILED EXPERIMENT’

“I’m feeling more and more like (jail consolidation) is a failed experiment,” said House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan. “I’m all for efficiencies and the concept of collaboration but if we’re not going to step up to the plate to fund county facilities at the appropriate level, I think local control could be the answer.”

McCabe said his county, Somerset, has a large modern jail that could earn revenue by boarding inmates and prisoners from elsewhere.

The bill to return jails to the counties was being circulated for co-sponsors Thursday by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Piscatquis. Davis could not be reached by telephone for comment. Thibodeau said he wants the bill on the floor of the Senate as soon as possible.

In an interview last week, Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association and one of the two remaining members on the Board of Corrections, said returning the jails to county control will create winners and losers because some jails in the state are antiquated and overcrowded and will have to find a way to house their inmates. Other jails will have excess capacity, which was one of the reasons why consolidation made sense, he said.

STATE OBLIGATED TO PROVIDE FUNDS

Bill Collins, administrator for Penobscot County, said he and others in county government favor returning the jail to county control but believe the state should continue to contribute what it is now spending on jails. Shaving state spending at the expense of county taxpayers would be wrong, he said.

“I realize Gov. LePage is not responsible for creating the system but I do believe the state has an obligation to provide the funding that was promised when the system was created,” Collins said. It’s still a good deal for the state because it won’t have to budget for future increases in jail spending and it won’t have to cover the cost of major capital projects, like new jails, expansions or renovations.

Penobscot County Jail consistently has dozens more inmates than it is authorized to handle, not including the 50 to 60 each day who are currently housed in another facility. If the jails are returned to the counties, Penobscot County will need more space and will probably explore building a new regional jail with another county, Collins said.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said the amount of money the state spends on jails will determine whether returning them to the counties is workable.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: @Mainehenchman