Sagadahoc-Lincoln jail faces financial uncertainty

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WISCASSET — While not filling open positions should help the Two Bridges Regional Jail get through the rest of this fiscal year, jail officials are looking for ways to cope with potential revenue cuts, including contracting with other counties to receive revenue directly for housing their prisoners.

One issue faced by the jail – which serves Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties – is a drop in boarding revenue the jail expected to receive from the state Department of Corrections, Mark Westrum, the jail’s correctional administrator, said Tuesday.

The Jail Authority voted 11-1 to approach other counties, including neighboring Waldo and Knox, about housing their inmates to create another income stream.

Lincoln County Commissioner and Jail Authority member Bill Blodgett, who opposed the decision, said it is too early to take that step, since the authority has not established boarding rates.

Meanwhile, Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties pay the jail a capped, monthly fee to their respective inmates. The jail also receives a quarterly payment from the state.

A bill before the Legislature, LD 186, would in part eliminate the cap and the Board of Corrections, Westrum said. The authority on Tuesday granted unanimous conceptual support to that bill, with recommended changes to the document by the authority’s attorney that would recognize the unique nature of the authority’s structure – for example, that the jail is run by the authority, and not a single sheriff.

“The issue that I have been facing is getting through the rest of this fiscal year, and looking at our population,” Westrum said, noting that the jail in recent weeks has housed around 175-200 inmates a day, of which only about 75 come from the two counties. The rest come from other jurisdictions.

While the state Board of Corrections paid the jail its first-, second- and third-quarter payments, Westrum is concerned the fourth could be reduced or not be paid at all.

“We (would) have to start shipping inmates back, almost immediately,” he said.

The final fiscal-year payment is supposed to come in April, Westrum told the authority Tuesday. If it arrives in full, the jail will still be behind financially. But it has several job openings and has opted to delay filling those positions until after it knows whether it will receive the full payment.

While Westrum has a plan for how to get through the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30, there are likely to be additional financial challenges. Money paid by the two counties to run the jail has been capped by the state at about $4.8 million since 2008 – to fund jail operations, and sheriff transports and programs – and the statewide cap is $61.5 million.

“The counties have had no ability to go back to the property tax to collect enough resources to run the jails,” Westrum said.

Now it costs about $79 million to run the state’s jails, and while the Legislature was supposed to make up the difference, economic constraints have prevented it from doing so in recent years, Westrum said.

“I already know that we can’t survive on $4 million,” he said, referring to the portion of county funds that go straight toward running the jail. “I think the authority realizes that we can’t, either.”

The jail operates on a budget of nearly $6.8 million; the difference between that and the money it receives from the counties is made up by the state’s four quarterly payments, and other revenues, such as boarding Department of Corrections inmates.

The jail has seven pods, or housing units. There are times when certain inmates – such as those testifying against each other, or maximum-security versus minimum-security, men versus women – must be kept in separate pods, which means those pods have to be operated even when they are not full.

“If the biggest pod, that holds 72 people, is open – the lights are on, the officer is on duty – but there are only 30 inmates in there, how efficient is that?” Westrum said.

That led him to ask the Authority Tuesday about approaching other counties, such as Waldo and Knox, about housing their inmates. That could help fill the pods, and provide extra income towards debt service, operations and capital improvements, Westrum said.

Lincoln County Sheriff and authority member Todd Brackett said there have been discussions between the counties.

“It’s impractical to think that we could support (the jail) with just Sagadahoc and Lincoln inmates,” Sagadahoc County Sheriff and authority member Joel Merry said. “Because of the model by which it was created, it really needs closer to a full house to be cost effective. … We have capacity, and we need to look at the best possible alternatives to fill that capacity.”

The jail receives extra funds by housing other-county inmates, he said. Counties whose jail budgets are less than their tax cap pay the remainder into a state investment fund overseen by the Board of Corrections, from which monies are redistributed to the Lincoln-Sagadahoc jail to pay for those other inmates.

But budget curtailments could cut into that money, Westrum said. Through a contract, the funds would go directly from one county to the other, as opposed to being channeled through the state investment fund and possibly not being distributed, he said.

An alternative to a contract could be allowing another county to join Lincoln and Sagadahoc’s authority, Westrum said.

“We’re trying to plan for our future,” Westrum said. “We’re trying to figure out how … we make our jail run after this fiscal year ends, and the state no longer supports us.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.