AUGUSTA — A six-year-old cap on property taxpayers’ share of county jail costs may be cracking as lawmakers search for more money.
Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee put counties on notice Monday that the cap, which froze county spending on jails at 2008 levels and passed on additional costs to the state, needs to be re-examined.
Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, said he was uncertain whether current laws intended for the state to be taking a larger share of the total jail costs. He also wondered whether the state ought to be paying for pay and benefit hikes for county corrections officers.
“I don’t think this committee can craft a response to the current plight facing the Board of Corrections and the county jail system unless we have some familiarity with how personnel costs and services are paid for,” Dion said. “And what does it mean when counties act independently in that cost arena?”
Maine’s 16 counties pay about three quarters of the state’s $82 million jail cost, the same amount that was paid in 2008. The balance, about $20 million in added annual spending since 2008, comes from the state.
In Androscoggin County, about $1.2 million of the jail’s $5.4 million budget is paid for by the state. The rest, $4.2 million, comes from property taxes levied against each of the county’s 14 towns. It’s passed on in every property tax bill.
Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins testified Monday that his jail is run as frugally as any in Maine.
“I operate that jail with 54 employees,” he said. “That includes the cooks, one captain and one lieutenant. I had a full-time education staff person and I cut that. We are about as down to the bone as possible.”
Corrections officers in Androscoggin County are in their second year of working without a contract, but health care costs and changes in retirement are forcing costs up.
If the state must re-examine the property tax cap, one way would be to create a new one based on personnel costs. If a county wishes to give a large raise to its officers, it can do so as long it pays for it, he said.
“The state will never have that excuse again that, ‘Here we are, funding a $300,000 increase because a county commission wants to give a 9 percent raise or a 10 percent raise,’” he said.
It’s a realistic alternative to letting Maine’s Board of Corrections negotiate each county jail’s labor contract, he said.
“They are not going to have time to negotiate 15 contracts,” Desjardins said. “I can assure you that.”