AUGUSTA – The Legislature gave preliminary approval of the jail consolidation bill Tuesday evening. The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House despite lengthy debate and was passed in the Senate without comment.

Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said he was proud of the final proposal because unlike the school consolidation efforts, stakeholders in the prison system were brought together to craft the legislation.

“It was government at its finest,” said the co-chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Last year, Gov. John Baldacci proposed the state take control of the county jails. Upset county officials came up with a counterproposal that retained some local control. The ultimate goal of both plans was to effectively manage bed space and save money.

After many meetings, conference calls and debate among county commissioners, sheriffs, the Maine Municipal Association, the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office, a compromise bill was passed by the committee last week.

The bill would create a nine-member oversight board and seek to both improve inmate services and control property taxes.

Sykes satisfied

Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, the committee’s ranking Republican, said change is always difficult, but he is satisfied the bill will increase cost efficiency and improve the existing system.

“This bill responds to the continual increase in the cost of operating our county jails,” he said. “That’s the largest cost-driver in your property tax at the county level.”

The House vote revealed regional differences of opinion, rather than partisan ones. The opposition was evenly split between parties, but 24 of the 29 votes against the bill came from representatives from Aroostook, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and York counties.

“I have spoken with people in Aroostook County who aren’t happy with this plan,” said Rep. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash. “They have legitimate concerns with it and with what we’ve done recently with consolidation, I am not ready to take that leap again.”

Opposition

Members from Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, which share the recently built Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, also voiced their opposition.

“I really do wish I was rising in support of this bill, but at this time I cannot,” said Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham. “To go forward with a plan that does not have everyone on board is reason for concern. I am sure that these problems can be fixed before this plan goes forward.”

But with the clock ticking toward midnight Wednesday, when the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn, the majority of lawmakers were not swayed by the concerns of the four counties.


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