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Maine Sheriffs to Governor: Jails are Facing a Funding Crisis
04/30/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

Sheriffs from Maine's 16 counties have been warning Gov. Paul LePage that the jail system is in the midst of a crisis that could force the closure of some facilities. They say the state has failed to pay its share to maintain the jails under a more unified structure launched five years ago. The governor met with sheriffs today at the State House, and, as Keith Shortall reports, they say he's promised to find at least a temporary solution to the funding problem.

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Maine Sheriffs to Governor: Jails are Facing a Fu Listen

According to some Maine sheriffs, there are jails that are not just woefully underfunded - they're on the verge of being shut down unless the state comes forward with some cash.

"If we don't receive any funding for that fourth-quarter payment, we would not be able to make payroll by at least the third week of May, and we'd have to close," says Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins.

Desjardins says he made the case to the governor in a letter, asking that either the state make good on a due payment of $184,000, or find spaces for 174 inmates now housed in Auburn. Desjardins says that LePage has assured him that he will find at least a temporary solution to the immediate budget problem.

"He did make the statement that, 'Don't worry, you won't have to close Androscoggin County,'" Desjardins says. "But we need the funding and I feel comfortable he'll come up with a solution."

Desjardin says that unlike some other jails, the structure of Androscoggin prohibits him from cutting back on costs by reducing staff. But other jail adminstrators have also expressed a sense of urgency about the funding shortfall, which comes under a new more unified system adopted five years ago.

The new system operates under a state Board of Corrections, and shares costs with the state. Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty says the governor has proposed that a committee be created to study some options to the structural problems, including a return to the old system of independent county jails, or a reworking of the Board of Corrections.

"And the third least desirable is that the state takes over the jails," Liberty says. "And I don't believe the sheriffs want that to happen, and neither does the state. I think we can all agree when the jails are operated locally, and there's local control over those jails, it's more efficient and works well."

As it's now configured, some sheriff's have argued, the system is broken. "Well, I think when you can't meet your budget, it is broken," says former Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion, who is now a Democratic legislator from Portland and serves as co-chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Dion says he believes the real problems in the jail system are not just about money, but about leadership. There is, he says, an ongoing chronic shortfall in funding for capital imrpovements at county jails.

"So yes, every year we've run the notorious structural deficit within the state Board of Corrections and not put money into the kinds of funds that make sure that the building is maintained, that equipment is purchased," Dion says. "I think there's a legitimate complaint from the sheriffs and the county commissioners on that point, and it's somehting that this committee has heard and we're willing to address."

Committee Co-Chair Stan Gerzovsky, also a Democrat, says he believes the best solution is to fix problems in the current system, rather than return to the days of old.

"Believe me, if they ever went back to the old system, they would have to raise property taxes in the millions and they wouldn't want to do that," Gerzovsky says. "So we have to make the system work, we have make it work better, we have to make it work a lot smarter. And there's no reason we can't, because it's being done all over the country. We're not unique in this."

Maine Sheriff's Association President Randall Liberty says he's encourged by the meeting with the governor, and believes the immediate funding issues can be resolved in the short term.


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