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Bill Will Aim to Control Every County Jail Budget in Maine
09/27/2013   Reported By: Mal Leary

The power of the State Board of Corrections would be increased significantly under a measure submitted for the January session of the Legislature. The co-chairs of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee are proposing the that the Board control the PURSE STRINGS of the county jails.

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Portland Rep. Mark Dion (D) and Brunswick Senator Stan Gerzofsky (D) have submitted legislation that would shift budget authority from the county jails to the State Board of Corrections. Gerzofsky said current law gives the Board responsibility for coordinating the correctional facilities but little authority over the jails' $80 million annual budget. As a result, Gerzofsky said one or two disgruntled counties who refuse to go along, are able to prevent the board from taking action designed to save money for the whole system. He said the board should not be hamstrung in this way.

"They have had a very hard time getting to the position where they can save money and start looking at best practices," Gerzofsky said. "We had a couple of sample runs, such as transportation we proved that we could save a substantial amount of money. Other counties refused to participate. So there comes a time when the board has to have the authority to operate."

The bill now goes to the legislative council and at least six of the ten leaders that make up the council will have to support the measure for it to be considered in January. The Republican senator on the panel, Gary Plummer of Windham, is a former county commissioner but he said the legislation will provoke a needed debate on how to improve the correctional system.

“We need to be sure that the authority is enough so that the board of corrections can function," said Plummer. "I have heard consistently that the Board of Corrections does not have enough authority to enforce the things we have asked them to do.

Mark Westrum, Chair of the Corrections Board, said the legislation is coming at a time when the county jail system is underfunded and will need additional support form the legislature to get through the budget year. A former sheriff who currently serves as the administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, Westrum agrees that the Board lacks adequate budgeting authority.

"When we try to ask questions, we are often times met with resistance. We do have the bottom line authority," Westrum said. "But we are at a place right now where we are at the fiscal cliff."

Hancock County Commissioner Steven Joy is the president of the County Commissioners Association. He said the issues surrounding the Corrections Board and the counties have been simmering since the Board was created. While not familiar with the legislation, he said an important question is whether the state will meet its obligation under the law to adequately fund the county jails when costs exceed the caps set in the law based on a county’s property taxes. "That’s their obligation under the present law to fund anything above our cap, the question is are they going to do that," said Joy.

Joy said the counties will review the legislation when it is printed, but will likely oppose the measure. If the proposed bill is approved for consideration, there will be a public hearing before the committee and any additional funding will face the scrutiny from the Appropriations Committee.

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