AUBURN – The state wants to know what Maine’s 15 county jails might look like if they could reverse the budget clock to 2008.

In Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, the answer is “bleak.” Sheriffs say layoffs, delays of needed repairs and partial shutdowns could all be necessary.

“I’m having a difficult time playing a guessing game with the state of Maine,” Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant said Friday. “There are lots of unanswered questions.”

For now, the state is only asking what-if questions, said Denise Lord, the assistant commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections.

Jails, now overseen by a state board, are operating on six-month budgets as they switch their fiscal year from the calendar year to the state’s July 1 to June 30 budget year. Operating at last year’s spending levels would cause a money crunch, in part, due to fixed costs such as labor contracts and rising medical expenses.

No decision on funding for county jails had been made, Lord said Friday afternoon, as sheriffs began sending in their answers.

Might sheriffs have to make cuts?

“That would really be the worst-case scenario,” Lord said. “This is really an analysis.”

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins understands it is an exercise, but it’s painful, nonetheless, he said.

At his jail, the shortfall would be more than $500,000 in each year of the state’s two-year budget. Desjardins would lay off six corrections officers in July and five more in July 2010.

It would cripple the jail.

The Androscoggin County Jail currently holds up to 160 people inside. With fewer guards to watch the inmates, their numbers would also have to decline.

The capacity would fall to around 100 inmates in the first year. In the second year, the population would be capped at somewhere between 50 and 100 inmates, Desjardins said.

Traditionally, the jail has needed its capacity. At noon on Friday, the jail population was 123. As always, it fluctuated with new arrests and released inmates. In the prior 12 hours, local police had made 16 arrests, booking each person at the Auburn jail.

Desjardins didn’t know where he’d send inmates if there were too few guards to watch them.

“In 35 years of law enforcement, this is the first time I have done a budget without any plan for implementation,” Desjardins said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work.”

One answer might come from the state’s new Board of Corrections, which is overseeing county jails.

The board, formed in May 2008, is looking at reshaping the 15 county jails into a unified system. The mission of each jail will be re-examined, Lord said.

So far, the board isn’t talking about closing any facilities, but some may see their work reduced to save money, she said.

Oxford County’s Sheriff Gallant believes his jail may be one that changes as the state searches for cuts.

In 2007, an initiative headed by Gov. John Baldacci called for the closure of the Oxford County Jail and others. In the months that followed, the jail was re-examined as a possible holding area before the state gave up on the plan.

The holding area proposal may return, Gallant said. It would be better than the straight cut requested by the state, he said.

Under such a budget squeeze, his jail would see nearly a $100,000 drop in revenue each year. He’d be forced to lay off one person in each of the next two years and he’d lose three more positions that are already frozen.

“Right now, I cannot hire because I don’t have any money,” he said.

Franklin County Sheriff Dennis Pike said he doubted the state would find net savings by changing his jail.

“We operate very, very bare bones,” he said.

Any money that would be saved by cutting staff or beds at his jail would likely be offset by the need for part-time help or overtime pay, he said.

“You have to have a minimum number of staff to operate,” he said. And if the number of beds are cut, the inmates would still have to be served in the system and transported from facility to facility on the state dime, he said.

Desjardins explained the issue like a businessman.

“If I had a local company that needed to cut costs, I could cut my hours and lay off people,” he said. “I would make fewer widgets.”

But whether or not he’s ready, the crooks keep coming, he said.

“I can’t cut production,” he said. “I can’t tell police in Androscoggin County to make fewer arrests.”

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