Saturday, December 7, 2013
The Maine Board of Corrections might not take a vote originally scheduled for Tuesday on Franklin County's request to reopen its jail, according to Chairman Mark Westrum.
He said he learned late Monday that three top corrections officials would not attend.
Commissioner Joseph Ponte, Director of Operations Ralph Nichols and Director of Administrative and Financial Services Scott Ferguson are all unable to attend the six-hour meeting, he said.
Westrum said after consulting with the board's attorney, he decided to hold the meeting anyway, though he is unsure how many decisions the board will feel comfortable making without the department leadership present.
"I can't see us making a multimillion(-dollar) decision without our key players there," Westrum said.
The board is scheduled to discuss contentious issues at the six-hour meeting, including the financial crisis throughout the unified jail system and Franklin County's request to re-open its jail.
The Franklin County Jail's functions have been reduced to those of a 72-hour holding facility for the past four years as part of a law that consolidated the state's 16 county jails into a unified system.
Westrum said the Board of Corrections also is scheduled to make important decisions about the funding crisis the state's jails are facing. Last month a jail expert told the board that the jails were "possibly about to run over a cliff."
Jail officials said they have nothing left they can cut without compromising safety and eliminating basic jail functions. The board also has expressed frustration that it does not have the money it needs to fulfill its original purpose of starting programs to reduce the repeat-offender rate.
Unless the Legislature approves supplemental funding, Westrum said, the board is projecting being $500,000, or 75 percent, short of what it needs to make third- and fourth- quarter payments to the state's jails.
Several board members previously said they were worried that as long as the system is in financial crisis, they could not afford to grant the Franklin jail permission to open as a fully operational jail.
As long as Franklin jail is a holding facility, the county pays about $600,000 into the state system to board its inmates in other jails. If granted full status, the jail would retain that money to run its own operation.
Westrum said if the board does not decide on the Franklin County Jail or any of the other agenda items at the meeting, it will need to call a special meeting.
According to state regulations, the board has until Sept. 10, or 90 days after the public hearing held about the the Franklin jail's request, to make a final decision on the pending switch.
The board deferred making a decision at the last board meeting, on July 16, saying it needed more time to weigh its options, which could have a significant financial effect on the rest of the system.
Sheriff Scott Nichols and other Franklin County officials have been lobbying the board to change the jail's status since Nichols took office in January, though the complaints from the county stem back to the switch in 2009.
Critics of the county jail's reduced status said the under the consolidated system, Franklin County inmates don't have the same opportunities for work-release programs, have less access to their attorneys and are removed from their families.
Local officials also said the county is wasting time and money by not having a fully operational jail. Law enforcement officials now have to travel more than 70 miles round trip to transport inmates between jails in other counties and Franklin County Court in Farmington.
Sheriff Nichols said he hasn't spoken with the board about the request since the last meeting about the jail's status. He said Jail Administrator Doug Blauvelt and other county officials plan to attend the meeting in hopes of the board taking a vote.
"I'd say I'm optimistic, but with the state of Maine I'm never optimistic," he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252