State cuts county jail budget by $157,000

By Mike Lange
Staff Writer

    DOVER-FOXCROFT — Piscataquis County Sheriff John Goggin and Corrections Administrator Dave Harmon have often touted the county jail as one of the most efficient in the state.
    Unfortunately, their ability to “do more with less” may cost them in the long run.

    Both men addressed the county commissioners’ meeting last week, warning them that the overall financial picture does not look promising.
    Harmon recapped the scenario, noting that the state approved a $1,478,000 budget for the Piscataquis County jail in June. “Two weeks into June, DOC (the Maine Department of Corrections) came back and said ‘we’re cutting your budget by $157,000,’’ Harmon said. “So I had to come up with a good way to deal with it.”
    Harmon, noting the average reimbursement the county receives from boarding federal inmates, will increase his projected income in that account from $210,000 to $300,000.
    “So that closes the gap a little bit,” he said.
    In past years, the county corrections department has been able to keep all excess funds earned from boarding federal inmates and the money paid for capital improvements in the jail. “Now, DOC is saying that if we earn more than I’ve estimated from the (boarding) revenue, they want us to send them 75 percent of it and we keep 25 percent.”
    In addition, the federal prisoner population may be decreasing. In fiscal year 2013, Harmon said the Piscataquis County jail averaged around 15 inmates per day. “I’ve got six over there right now,” he said.
    After passage of LD 1824 — An Act to Provide Additional Authority to the State Board of Corrections — by the Legislature last year, the state now has more authority over county jails. Supporters say that it makes more sense to have a uniform set of standards for all correctional facilities, but opponents say that some of the provisions are too far-reaching for rural lock-ups like Piscataquis County.
    All three Piscataquis County lawmakers — Reps. Pete Johnson and Paul Davis and Sen. Doug Thomas — voted against the bill and Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it. But the veto was overridden and the bill became law.
    Harmon said that the Piscataquis County jail budget has been essentially “flat-funded” for the past four years while everything from fuel oil to food has gone up significantly. “We spent $63,000 for food in 2011 and we paid $88,000 this past year,” Harmon said.
    The Piscataquis County jail is staffed to the DOC “minimum standards,” Harmon said, so there’s no way to eliminate personnel or cut working hours.
    It’s also mandatory that part-time corrections officers take the same five-week training course as full-time personnel. “How many people that want a part-time job can take five weeks off from their regular job to train for a position that pays $12 an hour?” said Harmon.
    James Annis, chairman of the County Commissioners, said that he has already contacted Sen. Thomas about the problem. “I explained the problem to him as carefully as I could, and he’s going to make some phone calls,” Annis said. “Never doubt the power of a legislator. When you’ve got a problem with the state, that’s the first person you need to go to.”
    Harmon said that if the county jail runs a deficit at the end of the fiscal year, the state could conceivably either bail them out financially or — in a worst-case scenario — close the facility.
    But Goggin said that the odds are that won’t happen. “They (the state) don’t have room for their own inmates now,” Goggin said. “They can hold this over your head; but in all practicality, they won’t do it.”
    Harmon plans to attend a DOC Finance Committee meeting soon and will have an updated report at the next County Commissioners’ meeting.

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