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State Jail Consolidation Program Not Working According to Some Administrators
05/23/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

When county jails were consolidated under the 'One Maine, One System' in 2008, one of the major goals was to reduce costs. But four years in, many jail and county officials are complaining that instead of saving money, consolidation is merely shifting costs. Brewing discontent came to a head last week, when the Somerset County jail stopped taking out-of-county inmates because they said the state is not reimbursing them enough.

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Major David Allen walks down a pristine, vacant hall of Somerset County's newly constructed jail into an empty pod.

"This is the place that's closed down," said Allen.

Allen is the administrator of this jail, which closed this 48-bed pod after refusing to take out-of-county inmates about a week ago. Allen said consolidation has given Somerset County the short end of the stick when it comes to paying for jails, and that the state is taking advantage of them.

"We tried to cooperate with the system on it, but we're not getting any relief, we feel like we're doing all the work, and receiving nothing on the back end of it," he said.

To understand Allen's complaints, it may help to look at why and how Maine jails were consolidated four years ago. According to Joe Ponte, the Commissioner for the Department of Corrections, consolidation was the result of jails becoming an increasing financial burden on county taxpayers.

"In 1988, the cost of county jails accounted for 28 percent of county budgets," said Ponte. "In 2006, the costs had grown to 48 percent."

Ponte said costs were expected to continue increasing at about 9% per year. To stem the spending, the state revamped the system. They closed a couple jails, and transformed others into 72-hour holding facilities. Inmates from those counties are now sent to larger and presumably more cost-efficient jails. To give relief to tax payers, counties capped property taxes to cover only the cost of housing their own county's inmates. The cost of housing out-of-county inmates is supposed to be covered by the state. But Major Allen said the state isn't paying its fair share. He said his taxpayers pay about 7.5 million a year to house an average of 90 inmates at the jail. For the out-of-county inmates:

"The system itself reimburses us 1.2 million dollars," said Allen. "And they average a hundred inmates in here. So you can see the disparity. They're not footing the bill in here. They're letting the county taxpayers pay for this entire facility, and they're shipping all of their inmates over here at a very minimal cost. If you're going to supply more than half the inmates in here, you should pay for more than half the bill."

So, Allen said the jail doesn't take any out-of-county inmates, and hopes to use the newly available beds to house federal inmates, for which the reimbursement is $90 per day versus about $22 per day from the state. Allen said the jail has housed federal inmates in the past, but has been penalized for it by the state. Allen said he typically doesn't get his fourth-quarter payment from the state.

"That wasn't part of the deal when we first signed on," said Allen. "We were supposed to be able to keep that federal boarding revenue and use it to offset taxes. Basically they're saying we've earned it, yes, and you can keep the federal boarding revenue, but then we're not going to give you all of the money in the investment fund. And we've had enough of that."

By refusing to take out-of-county inmates and essentially bowing out of the consolidation system, Allen said the jail should be able to keep that federal money now. Allen said he doesn't know how much longer the current, under-funded consolidation plan can't last before the situation for other jails gets dire.

"They're already dire," said Douglas Blauvelt. He is the facilities manager at the Franklin County detention center. Inmates at this 72-hour holding facility used to be sent to the Somerset County jail. But since Somerset stopped taking out-of-county inmates, Blauvelt said he's scrambling to find other jails that will take them. Inmates are now transferred twice the distance away, if not more.

"And once they're there, they have to come back for their court appearances, and it makes things very difficult," he said.

Blauvelt said the county has to spend more money on transportation costs and overtime for employees. But he doesn't fault the Somerset County jail for these problems. He traces them to consolidation.

"The state is trying to solve a financial problem, and they've actually created more financial problems," he said.

"It truly is, in my opinion, the state trying to do the best it can in very difficult times," Ponte said.

Commissioner Ponte said he understands the county jails' frustration. But, he said, the Department of Corrections, like virtually all state agencies, is facing budget problems of its own. He said budgets have have been reevaluated during the year to ensure that all jails can cover the cost of bare essentials.

"They're always looking toward that last quarter and saying who needs that money, and who can get by without it. And it's not the best way to operate, but it's kind of a sign of the times to a degree." said Ponte.

Dennis Pike, the sheriff of Franklin County, said that as jails have also been asked to reduce their budgets overall, its a clear sign that consolidation hasn't saved money.

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