SAGADAHOC COUNTY Sheriff Joel Merry in his office.

SAGADAHOC COUNTY Sheriff Joel Merry in his office.

BATH

The inability to maintain a full state Board of Corrections has created questions about who will be in control of Maine’s county jails, including Two Bridges Regional Jail.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, who serves as chairman of the Board of Corrections and is president of the Maine Sheriff ’s Association, spoke in support of LD-186 — a bill to dissolve the Board of Corrections and reinstitute county government control over county jails — during a hearing in front of the state Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

“I am pleased to report to you our Maine sheriffs stand as one, unanimous in our support for the return of Maine’s county jails to county control,” he said.

The committee will weigh the bill — sponsored by Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville — to determine whether amendments need to be made and make a recommendation to the Legislature about how it should proceed.

Prior to Monday’s hearing, Merry spoke with The Times Record about how the county jail system has struggled since the unified jail system was put into place through legislation passed in 2008. A task force was created to determine the needed changes and was faced with several options: Turn the jails over to the state or the counties. Instead, the task force recommended strengthening the Board of Corrections.

The Legislature agreed, overturning a veto by Gov. Paul LePage to approve legislation that gave the Board of Corrections more control of the system. The legislation, however, also reduced the number of members on the board and gave LePage greater authority over appointments to the fivemember group.

When two BOC members terms expired and a third one resigned, Merry said, LePage did not appoint replacements. That left the five-person board with just two members — unable to meet a quorum needed for making any changes. The board’s two paid staff members have also since left their positions.

That has left the county jail system in the lurch.

“I think in the Legislature’s mind, they thought they had it fixed, but the governor has continued to have some concerns about it,” Merry said. “I think philosophically, he feels that he needs to have more control and therein lies some confusion for me, because the way I look at statue, I feel the governor does have a lot of say in the process, at least in terms of what the statute allows him to do in terms of appointment to the Board of Corrections.”

Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for LePage’s office, offered a statement in response.

“Year after year, the state is forced to give millions of taxpayer dollars to the county jails due to poor fiscal management within the county system. The state allocates roughly $60 million in the budget for the county jails, but administrators continue to request millions more to make up for their deficit,” Bennett said in the statement. “More than $40 million in additional funding has been provided by the state over the last few years. This system is no longer sustainable.

“The governor will not keep sending taxpayers’ hard-earned money to a broken system that lacks fiscal accountability, nor will the governor appoint members to the board until the system is re-structured successfully,” she added. “It must be run either by the state or by the counties, but not both.”

But nothing can get done, Merry said, without at least a quorum of board members.

“We’re basically rendered ineffective. We can’t conduct any business,” he said. “The matter of inmate placement and movement of inmates within the county jail system has by default gone to the Commissioner of Corrections.”

The Board of Corrections has been in place since 2009. Prior to that, jail budgets were largely increasing annually. But, Merry said, it has not cost a community “a single dime more for corrections than it did in 2008, when a cap was put in place.”

“Some people would suggest this was a failed experiment,” he said, “but if you’re looking at it in terms of property tax relief that was a perceived issue” — one of several catalysts for creating the unified jail system — “then it has been successful.”

When looking at the actual costs, Merry said, the rate of growth from fiscal year 2009 to 2015 was 2.6 percent. The Board of Corrections would look at run rates and available money, and move those funds around between jails that needed more money and jails that needed less money.

The coordinated jail system the state switched to in 2008, Merry said, threw a wrench in the proposed governing procedures of Two Bridges Regional Jail.

“The thought is that if this goes back to the counties as is being proposed, that Two Bridges would also revert back to the original cost-sharing agreements,” Merry said. “That’s my hope anyway.”

From Sagadahoc County’s perspective, he said, “We pay a very, very high rate to house our inmates compared to a lot of other counties because there’s a cap, and the cap says no more no less, so regardless of how many inmates we have, we’re paying that amount. We have found ways to manage our inmate population and keep it relatively low so it’s almost counterintuitive to keep it low because it costs you more.”

Under the old system, “we would only pay for the number of inmates we have locked up, then I think that would be better for us.”

Under the proposed LD- 186, Merry said, the jails would be controlled by the counties. But, speculation remains about a potential LePage veto of the bill, to which considerable funding — $12.2 million — is attached.

The proposed law would remove the caps, Merry said, and remove state funding that for the last four years has been flat, making budgeting of the jails very difficult. State funding has been approximately $9 million a year.

“Going to this system created winners and losers,” Merry said, “and so doing away with this system is going to create winners and losers.

“The concern (in Sagadahoc County) is, we’re a small county and we’re paying a little over $2.5 million here in correctional-related expenses,” he added. “On any given day we may have between 35 and 40 inmates. That’s a lot of money to be paying for corrections and we don’t want to have to pay more.”

With the future of the jail system up in the air, it is difficult to plan and budget for the jails as counties work on their budgets. The Lincoln and Sagadahoc Multicounty Jail Authority sets the budget for Two Bridges Regional Jail.

Brunswick Police Capt. Mark Waltz is chair of the jail authority and said, with a $5.3 million cap, this year the jail’s budget is $6.8 million. He said $1.8 million is funded by state Board of Corrections and the rest is funded by the counties.

The optimum outcome for Two Bridges Regional Jail is to have control come back to the jail authority with funding from the state that trails off, rather than cuts off on July 1, Waltz said, and allows the authority to set prisoner rates and gives it time to find partners in other counties.

Merry supports giving control back to the counties because “you just can’t continue to paddle the canoe upstream with one paddle. It just isn’t working. … Let us take it back, let us manage it and run it and we’ll try to figure out how to do so in such a fashion that it won’t have tremendous impact on the local property taxpayers.”

Everything is up in the air now, but Merry said must be sorted out by July 1 when a new fiscal year begins.

“We want to make sure that our jails are safe and run efficiently,” Merry said. “We want to make sure that they’re there to keep our community safe from violent offenders and we want to do it with the least impact on local property taxpayers as possible.”

[email protected]timesrecord.com


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: