The just released proposal by the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) to restructure the state's county jail system did not come out of the blue, but nonetheless Washington County Commission Chair Chris Gardner says that he's surprised they "took this route." The county, still reeling from the DOC's plan to close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor, now has to contend with the prospect of the county's jail closing as well. "It's absolute foolishness when you look at it with the lens of reality," he adds succinctly.
While the latest DOC plan doesn't expressly state which county jails might be closed, five of the 15 county jails around the state are zeroed out in the summary budget estimate. They are the ones in Androscoggin, Franklin, Oxford, Piscataquis and Washington counties. Three regional multi‑county jail authorities would be created: southern, mid‑coastal and northern, with five jails in each region. The proposed savings, according to the summary budget, would be around $10 million a year.
What counties might see happen to their jail budgets is another matter, with Gardner pointing out the amount of time law enforcement would spend shuttling prisoners to regional jails. "It's not just the wear and tear on vehicles," he says, explaining that law enforcement departments in the county are lean as it is. Turn one of those officers into a taxi driver removed from their patrolling duties every time someone has to be taken to jail in Ellsworth, Bangor or Houlton, he adds, and the pressure on those departments to deal with the rising drug problem and associated crimes becomes even more difficult. It would take all day, he says, to transport prisoners to jails located elsewhere. "It'll be a big tax shift back to local property owners."
The county jail funding formula is a contentious one, with a convoluted history that began in 2007, explains Gardner. The Baldacci administration tried to tackle a jail bed shortage by creating a unified system under a 2008 state law that sought to consolidate jail operations. Counties kicked and screamed, with Washington County one of the counties that reluctantly signed on when it was no longer viable to stand alone. "We did not sign up initially, but eventually we did," Gardner says. The state promised to freeze the counties' jail budget amounts, with the amount of local taxes that can be raised to support jails capped at a 4% increase per year. The state then would pay the overage in any costs. The agreement looked good on paper, but Gardner notes that if just one entity doesn't live up to its end it falls apart. Two parts of the agreement that muddied the mix were changing costs and changing legislative bodies. Rather than paying 100% of the overage, he says, "The next legislature said, 'Nah, we'll give you 80%.'" He adds, "It was pure turmoil."
Last year it cost $87 million to run the county jails, with the state covering $15.3 million of that amount, and Governor LePage sought to cut state funding for county jails as part of a budget proposal that the legislature turned down. He previously has said the jails should be funded and run by either the state or the county in order to avoid duplication.
The county jail budget analysis in the latest DOC plan shows the Washington County jail with a budget of $2.191 million and an overage of about $164,000, for total expenditures of $2.355 million. Eight of the 15 jails listed had lower expenditures than their respective "frozen" budget amounts. While the overages for those jails that then drew state funds ranged from $15,000 to $250,000, the Oxford jail was $482,781 over its frozen budget amount. The largest jail budget, Cumberland, with reported expenditures of $18,763,000, would see the largest gain if the new plan comes to fruition, with a budget expected to rise to $20,727,000.
"The fact that they're revisiting a terrifically flawed idea," says Gardner, pausing and not finishing the sentence. "We'll be taxed at whatever we were paying before and sending it out of county. So we're taking, what, about $2.1 million and job creating outside of the county." He notes, "The vast amount of the money in the budget is for wages, and it's usually for younger persons with families." How, he asks, does Washington County, with its already significant struggles to maintain employment options for younger residents, survive a jail closure with the possibility of the prison closure as well. "This coming right behind the prison is something. What the hell are we doing?" he asks rhetorically.
However, Gardner is hopeful that the plan will meet with both resistance and timing issues. "I can say with pretty good confidence, realizing even if everyone agreed, we don't think there's enough time in the legislative session to get it done. I don't think this has a chance of proceeding unless the next governor is interested in it."