AUGUSTA — Franklin County leaders implored a new group of state appointees to either spend more on Maine's 15 county jails or give up their control.
The current network is "a bad idea which continues to grow worse," Franklin County Commissioner Fred Hardy told the 14 member Commission to Study the Board of Corrections.
"I believe counties, many with more than 100 years of experience, are better suited for operating and maintaining their own jails," Hardy said.
His comments came at the start of a 2½-hour hearing for public comment on the group's charge, to improve a system that has a few champions.
In 2009, Maine's jails joined in a system that relied on a combination of local and state funding to operate. A set level of local property taxes would continue to pay for a majority of the expenses. The state agreed to fund the growing gap between county funding and actual costs.
One year before the system took effect, Mainers spent $73.7 million on its jails. In 2009, funding rose by 2 percent to $75.2 million. In 2010, they were given a 2.6 percent hike and 2.4 percent the following year. The 2012 budget rose by only 1 percent.
In 2013, spending crossed the $80 million mark with a rise of 0.6 percent.
The change has led to overcrowding in many jails, including the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. In some jails, sections have been closed down because budgets couldn't pay for needed corrections officers. At others, such as the Oxford and Franklin county jails, in Paris and Farmington, respectively, new limited missions have required sheriff's department personnel to ship inmates to other, better funded county jails after 72 hours.
Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. said his jail fails to move its inmates on time because he often can't find a place to take them.
"We're daily violating the 72-hour hold limit we've been required to keep," Nichols said Friday.
When the system was created, Franklin County was supposed to take its longer-term inmates to the Somerset County Jail in Madison. However, officials there refused to accept the inmates, saying the state's reimbursement for the added inmates was too low.
Franklin County wanted to restore its Farmington facility to a full-service jail, but the state Board of Corrections denied the request last month. In response, Franklin County commissioners voted to open one-on-one talks with Somerset to craft an independent deal for housing inmates in Madison.
But those talks are on hold while the new commission — sparked by Gov. LePage and appointed by Maine legislators — does its work.
"We're going to wait and see what happens," Nichols said.
The commission is scheduled to finish its analysis by December and report suggested changes to the system to the Legislature in January.
By then, the system is likely to be in another budget squeeze.
In August, the Board of Corrections approved county jail budgets of about $84 million for the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2014. However, the state's biennial budget has set jail spending at about $80 million, about $4 million shy of the total, said Scott Ferguson, the director of the Corrections Service Center of the Maine Department of Corrections.
"How drastic is this going to be?" asked Mark Westrum, the administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset and the chairman of the Board of Corrections. "Now what?"
"I don't have an answer for you right now," Ferguson said.