PARIS — Oxford County has continued payments to fund the state’s jail system, even as questions loom on its long-term durability.
County commissioners unanimously agreed to send $93,537 to the Maine Board of Corrections’ investment fund Thursday afternoon. The county paid the same amount earlier this year.
“The general feeling is we should play the game … this county hasn’t gotten a bad deal from the BOC,” Commissioner Steve Merrill said.
Waldo, Oxford and Franklin counties and the state pay into a fund which is redistributed to the other 12 county jails in Maine.
“The portion of the mill rate (for Oxford County) that goes to the jails is well below the median of the 16 counties … What is called ‘the jail tax,’ the amount divided by total valuation for Oxford County, our total tax rate, is considerably less than other counties,” county Administrator Scott Cole said.
Oxford County Jail was downgraded to a 72-hour holding facility through a statewide jail consolidation plan in 2009, requiring it to transport prisoners held more than 72 hours to and from larger facilities. The move also capped the amount county property owners pay to fund jail operations at 2008 levels.
The annual $187,074 payment the county makes is designed to offset the additional cost of housing inmates in other county facilities.
County officials have consistently supported the payments, though others are questioning parts of it. Franklin County has sought a lawyer’s advice on whether they are required to make additional payments into the fund to shore up budget shortfalls. The Board of Corrections is expected to ask the Legislature for $2.5 million to fund the rest of this fiscal year, which ends in June.
Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant said he expects sheriffs across the state to band together and present the issue to the Legislature. He said the change to a holding facility has required the jail to house its inmates in other facilities and pick them up for their court appointments. The rising transportation costs, coupled with five years of flat funding, have put the system on the brink of failure.
“The system is in dire straits and is on the verge of collapse,” Gallant said. “It needs $2.5 million to stay afloat.”
While there is enough space to house Maine’s prisoners, budget pinches have forced jails to close down areas and reduce staff, Gallant said.
“When you run a flat budget, you’re going to run into issues when costs go up,” he said.
In November 2013, sheriffs from five countieshammered out an agreement to house inmatesin nearby facilities to prevent back and forth treks to jails as far away as Wiscasset.
Currently, 22 Oxford County inmates are being held 46 miles away at Cumberland County Jail in Portland, 14 are being held 56 miles away at Two Bridges Jail in Wiscasset, while six prisoners are at the Oxford County Jail, which only has 27 beds.
The figures, provided by jail Administrator Capt. Edward Quinn, reflect the reality that jail populations in neighboring counties, such as Androscoggin in Auburn, change regularly.
In the five years since the jails have been asked to overhaul their practices, Oxford County has adapted to improve cooperation between jails and holds court appearances via video to offset rising transportation costs.
“We’re working on finding ways with other counties to cut costs,” Quinn said.
For instance, if there’s no judge in the South Paris court, Quinn has begun to hold some court appearances via video with a judge in another county. An initial court appearance for a Peru man arrested on a charge of murder was televised before a Rumford district court judge in October. Moments later, the same judge heard a Rumford man plead not guilty to robbery, kidnapping and assault.
“The county government is fiscally responsible,” Quinn said. “Let it be involved in the jails.”