October 25, 2013

Group outlines Maine jail problems, solutions

A lack of money, failure to cooperate and a host of other problems tangle the state’s county jail consolidation program, panel says.

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A lack of money, failure to cooperate and a host of other problems have tangled the state’s county jail consolidation program and while a solution hasn’t been decided, the group tasked with fixing the system said it’s clear it has to be changed.

The state Board of Corrections Friday outlined problems with the four-year-old system and proposed possible solutions the group could recommend to the Legislature.

The commission’s report for a long-term solution to the county jail system’s financial and governance woes is due Dec. 4, and it’s set to meet three more times in November before finalizing its recommendations.

“I think there’s a general consensus that the status quo is unsustainable and intolerable,” said David Flanagan, the chairman of the commission, after Friday’s meeting, the panel’s third. “The proof of that is that I believe the Legislature is unlikely to fund any deficit so long that they think the county jail system is not operating efficiently as it could.”

The state created the board, composed mostly of county officials, in 2009 to oversee the unified jail system created that year by Gov. John Baldacci.

The 2009 legislation capped money raised by counties for corrections at 2008 levels, totaling $62.3 million, as a way to cut local taxes. The state  promised it would make up the difference to fund the operating costs for the jails, but that hasn’t been done.

The problems identified by the commission include an unrealistic funding process, a lack of authority of the board, no standardization among jails and counties, undefined and unmet objectives and sacrificing innovative and effective programs.

The most immediate problem is a potentially massive budget shortfall for the current fiscal year — possibly $4 million, according to a presentation to the commission.

Flanagan, a former Central Maine Power Co. executive who also served as general counsel for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee investigation of Hurricane Katrina, said the commission’s recommendation needs to propose long-term fixes to the current system before the Legislature will grant more money.

Flanagan sees three possible solutions: return to the system where each county was responsible for funding its own system, turn the county jail system over to be run by the state Department of Corrections or change the existing Board of Corrections, so it has more authority to enforce decisions and bring consistency and efficiency to the current system.

“Most people are talking about the third alternative,” Flanagan said.

That option, however, presents its own set of problems because it’s uncertain what counties will be willing to give up as far as authority goes, Flanagan said.

He said that could include staffing levels and compensation, contracting for goods and services and overall budgeting.

“That’s the elephant that has to be recognized and has to recognized next meeting,” Flanagan told the commission.

Some, including Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci, have suggested tying state funding to inflation or another  measure and allow counties to get additional money from property taxes.

“I think we need to step back and say, ‘We’ve had some experience with this,’” he said. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think we’re going to get the funding that’s necessary (from the state) based on the history that we’ve now had.”

Baldacci — whose brother was governor when the system was consolidated —  he said if the counties don’t have to raise money for the system through property taxes, it takes away the incentive to make local decisions to save money.

He also suggested encouraging counties to work together on regional issues

“I think we have to look at whether we’re putting a Band-Aid on something, or if we’re using this opportunity to correct a more major problem,” Baldacci said.

The commission is scheduled to next meet Nov. 1 and 15 for work sessions. Its last meeting to finalize the recommendation is scheduled for Nov. 22.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
pkoenig@centralmaine.com

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