Maine's jail system faces budget pinch

by Daniel Hartill, staff writer Sun Journal Jan. 29, 2013

AUGUSTA — Unless more than half a million in cuts are found, Maine's network of county jails could run out of money before the end of June.The state predicts that fourth-quarter payments to Maine's 15 county jails will fall short by about $560,000, said Mark Westrum, chairman of the Maine Board of Corrections.

A state curtailment of more than $160,000 on the system is further squeezing the books, he said.

On Tuesday, the nine-member board — which includes Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte — made no cuts. Rather, they began deciding how they'll measure the needs of 16 counties and widely different facilities and needs.

The Somerset County Jail in Madison, for example, is making more than $1 million per year in revenue, mostly from taking prisoners in the federal justice system. Androscoggin County is considering laying off three kitchen workers and privatizing its jail food service in hopes of saving $45,000 per year.

Both could see cuts, Westrum said.

"These are tough decisions we've got to make," said Westrum, who also serves as the administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. Every case, it seems, has complications.

Somerset County is using much of its money to pay the bond on its state-of-the-art jail. And the Androscoggin County Jail, which the county owns free and clear, is budgeted to hold more people than it has been housing.

It could be a strike against the jail when the board goes looking for cuts, Westrum said.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins lowered his functional capacity to 144 last summer, saying he had too little space and too few staff members to squeeze more inmates into the facility.

The Board of Corrections hopes to weigh all of the variables before it decides where to cut, Westrum said. Some of those decisions could come at its next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 19 in Augusta.

The projected shortfall is based on the most recent numbers in the jail network's budgeting software, used by every Maine jail. Even a modest cut could be tough to endure with only five months left in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Randall Greenwood, chairman of the Androscoggin County Commission, said after Tuesday's meeting that any cut would be serious.

"We're already looking at everything we can possibly cut," said Greenwood, who cited the food service discussion as proof.

"We don't have frills," he said. "We don't pad our budget."