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County officials keeping an eye on county jails restructuring proposal

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DOVER-FOXCROFT — Last month Gov. Paul LePage’s administration unveiled a restructuring proposal to hand oversight of the state’s 15 county jails to a new state commission and potentially close five jails — including Piscataquis County’s — while regionalizing the system.

The facilities are presently controlled by Maine’s counties, which pay $62 million of the total cost of $80 million, with the state funding the remainder. The overall jail budget in 2018 for Piscataquis County is $1,528,488.

The plan would create a new Maine Jail Commission with an executive director and seven members appointed by the governor to oversee three regional jail authorities — northern, central and southern regions — controlling five jails each.

“We are unsure of how seriously to take the threat from Augusta,” County Manager Tom Lizotte said during the Feb. 6 commissioners’ meeting — the first since the governor’s proposal was revealed. Lizotte said he has talked with Sen. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville and Reps. Norman Higgins, I-Dover-Foxcroft and Paul Stearns, R-Guilford and the three legislators said the proposal does not make sense for the region but county officials should still need to take the plan seriously.

“My concern at this point is the sense of morale of the people working in our jail, we have some excellent people there,” Lizotte said, saying he does not want the threat of closure hanging over the heads of jail employees.

Jail Administrator Maria Landry said facility officials have met to discuss the proposal, with some having just heard the news then. “There is some threat but it’s just that,” Landry said.

County officials said even if the Piscataquis County Jail were to be closed then there would still be transportation costs — to precisely where is not known, expenses for a holding cell and the need for a dispatch center.

Commissioner Jim Annis said the latest may be the fourth such proposal to close the Piscataquis County Jail made in the last two decades.

“We tax our constituents now for the jail we oversee,” Annis said. “What bothers me is we would send money to Augusta without the oversight.”

Commissioners Chair James White said the jail has always fallen under the supervisor of an elected sheriff, and with the proposal oversight would fall under the state. “There’s a separation that needs to be maintained,” he said.

In the other business, the commissioners opened the one bid received to construct a jail exercise yard roof.

BPS Roofing & General Contracting of Waterville submitted a bid of $89,000, to be paid in three installments at the document signing, the digging of holes and upon completion. Project funding would come from the inmate benefit account.

Lizotte said that Annis compared the project to the roof of a riding stable, covering a 70- by 40-foot yard with a 14-foot fence.

“I do motion we give this person first refusal until June,” White said, as the commissioners are awaiting possible developments on the state’s jail restructuring proposal before formally signing the bid documents.

Bids on a project to renovate the district attorney’s office space were also due by Feb. 2, and this work could be awarded without awaiting any developments at the state level.

Lizotte said three contractors looked at the space on the first floor of the county building and one bid was received for both the constructor and the electrical subcontracting. Nickerson & O’Day of Brewer bid $27,344 for the renovations and JK Electric of Cambridge bid $4,750.

The combined $32,094 is about half of what preliminary project estimates were.

District Attorney’s Office Office Manager Corina Tibbetts said work would start after April 2, once jury trials and arrangements have concluded. She said construction should take about three weeks.

The Bangor Daily News’ Michael Shepherd contributed to this story.

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