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LePage: More Funds Needed or Some County Jails Will Close
02/21/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Gov. Paul LePage is warning lawmakers that failure to find an additional $2.4 million by April 1 could result in some county jails closing their doors. Meanwhile, the limited power of the state corrections board, a desire by some counties to return to an independent jail system and a bid by the LePage administration to take over the county jails is setting the stage for a larger discussion. A.J. Higgins has more.

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LePage: More Funds Needed or Some County Jails Wi
Originally Aired: 2/21/2014 5:30 PM

Members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee were already feeling the pressure of resolving a $150 million budget problem by a scheduled April 16th deadline, when their stress level was ratcheted up another notch - this time, by the state Board of Corrections that oversees the finances of the state's 15 county jails.

Mark Westrum, the board's chairman, hinted Thursday at some serious consequences if lawmakers are unable to come up with an additional $2.4 million for the jails by April 1.

And that prompted by Rep. Mike Carey, a Lewiston Democrat, to probe further. "What is the date in the fourth quarter - and you may not have this right now - but if there's no legislation passed that fixes this mess, when do people stop getting paid or adverse consequences start happening?" he asked.

"I think that, depending on what you do here today, if there is a question about the fourth quarter not being funded, then we will immediately start a plan to either downsize, remission or close certain facilities - there's just going to be no other way to do it," Westrum responded.

Although not listed officially, some of the jails on the hit list mentioned to lawmakers include those in Aroostook County and Androscoggin County. And Westrum said the closure would only be the beginning of problems that would then spiral into a larger set of issues.

"Once we do that," said Westrum, "the impact will be great because then, all of a sudden, you'll have transportation costs and attorneys complaining because they don't have access to their clients. It's going to be a whole big series of events."

State Sen. Emily Cain, an Orono Democrat and a member of the panel, has seen these kind of late-in-the-session funding requests, and she says she will be pressing the corrections board for more information before she'll compromise already strapped state agencies to find another $2.4 million.

"So it's important that we drill down with the Board of Corrections to understand exactly what makes up that number and exactly what the timing of those needs are," Cain says.

The timing of Westrum's request - along with the suggested consequences for failing to grant it - was particularly disconcerting for Sen. Dawn Hill, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.

"This should be anticipated," she says. "And here we are at the very end of February and we're hearing about possible closures sometime after April 1st - it just doesn't give us any room to move."

Meanwhile, the larger question of how the state can resolve funding imbalances among the 15 jails remains unanswered. Members of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will meet Monday to consider a proposal by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte that the state take over county jail operations completely.

Aand in a letter to the Appropriations Committee, Gov. Paul LePage is also weighing in. He suggests four options: strengthening the authority of the Board of Corrections to provide more control over the jails; creaing regional jail authorities; transferring control of the jails to the state Department of Corrections or returning the authority back to the counties.


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