November 14, 2012

Somerset County opts out of four-county plan to lobby state

Commissioners don't want state to pay all of Somerset County jail's debt, because that could lead to state calling the shots

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Somerset County commissioners on Wednesday rejected an offer to join with four other counties in asking the state Board of Corrections to include jail debt in its upcoming budget for systemwide capital improvements.

The vote was 5-0 to oppose the offer and came with little discussion.

"We may have our own local legislator write a bill to present to help us reduce the debt, so the (proposal) is in direct conflict to that," said Commissioner Lynda Quinn, of Skowhegan.

Board Chairman Robert Dunphy, of Embden, said the county pays $2.7 million annually for debt on the construction of the Somerset County Jail in East Madison. He said the fair way would have the state pick up half of the debt because about half of the inmate population consists of boarders from other counties.

"If we could get to keep the unexpended balance that the jail makes as revenue, that would be a big help," Dunphy said. "That is anywhere from $800,000 to a million -- but we can't use that unexpended balance toward paying off the bond debt. The Board of Corrections law doesn't allow us to do that. We need to change the law on what we can do with our revenues."

The proposal would have included jails serving Lincoln, York, Sagadahoc and Hancock counties.

The Somerset County Jail was built in 2008 on the promise that the money the county takes in for boarding prisoners would help offset paying for the construction of the jail. In April 2008, the Legislature, at the urging of then-Gov. John Baldacci, created a state Board of Corrections that would oversee a unified state and county correctional system and capped the amount counties could raise from taxes to support corrections.

The state was to pay what the counties couldn't cover. The aim of the move was to freeze jail costs.

More than four years after plans for the new Somerset County Jail were approved as part of the state-mandated county jail consolidation plan, county officials say the county continues to pay an unfair share of jail operations and bond payments for construction.

In his presentation of the letter to commissioners at Wednesday's meeting, Sheriff Barry DeLong said he did not support the proposal because it asks for full debt payment by the state on the jails.

He said the move would be dangerous because the state, not the counties, then would then have control of the jails.

DeLong said Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, is writing a bill to help Somerset County reduce its debt by keeping excess revenue -- after paying for routine maintenance and upkeep -- from the boarding of inmates.

"What we discussed is the money we save, we keep," DeLong told commissioners. "If they pay this debt, it's no longer your jail. If another county wants to submit this, that's wonderful. Personally, as sheriff, I would not."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com

 

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