AUGUSTA — A task force created to save Maine’s jail system unanimously approved a measure Friday to grant new authority to the state’s Board of Corrections, potentially preventing more counties from leaving the fragile system.

However, the group led by former Central Maine Power director David Flanagan stopped shy of widespread changes.

Issues such as the millions of dollars in debt owed in counties with recently built jails were jettisoned Friday as the task force worked to craft a compromise.

The alternative was dark, Flanagan warned task force members.

Without a proposal, the Legislature is unlikely to fund the system with enough money to survive, almost ensuring a state takeover of all 15 county jails, he said.

Friday’s meeting capped six meetings of the 13-member task force, which included county commissioners, jail administrators, county managers and sheriffs.

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The group was created by the Legislature after several sheriff’s, including Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins, warned Gov. Paul LePage that jails were contemplating layoffs and even closure of their jails under the current system.

The five-year-old system capped county spending on jails at 2008 levels and relied on the rest of the funding to come from the state.

The Board of Corrections was created to oversee the budget requests that went to the Legislature and to help unify operations among the 15 jails. Those with space to spare would ease crowding at other jails. Empty beds could be used to ease crowding in the prison system. And millions of dollars in planned construction on new county jails — meant to raise capacity to meet rising inmate numbers — would be avoided.

It hasn’t worked as planned.

Soon after the system was created, the Maine economy plummeted. State spending, including the money promised to jails, was cut. And Somerset County, with one of the newest, biggest and most centrally located jails in the state, closed the doors of its Madison jail to inmates from other counties. The sheriff and county commissioners cited frustration over jail debt and the small amount of money paid for out-of-county inmates.

The system began to fail.

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If approved by the Legislature, the new plan would give the Board of Corrections the authority to force counties to accept inmates. Currently, that power rests solely with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who has not used it. The Board of Corrections would also retain the right to withhold funding from jails that do not accept inmates from within the system.

Such changes may not be enough to save the system, said Mark Westrum, a member of the task force and chairman of the Board of Corrections.

“What’s being proposed is not a solution,” Westrum said. “It really isn’t.”

The issue of debt and equity among counties was not addressed in the new proposal, he said. And the threat of withholding the money has already been tried with Somerset County.

“We did and we got sued,” Westrum said.

“That’s fine,” Flanagan said. “This is America. People get sued all the time. The important thing is to win.”

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Flanagan believes legislators will back the jail system if it can manage its money in a way that gives them confidence that there is a responsible system in place, both in day-to-day spending and with long-term capital projects.

However, Westrum has been directed to tell counties to come up with flat-funded budgets year after year, budgets with little room for capital spending.

“If it’s never been funded, what’s the point?” he asked.

Flanagan disagreed.

“They don’t have confidence that the money is being spent as effectively as it could be,” Flanagan said. “Nobody in this state is going to support a capital plan if they don’t know what the picture looks like. How much is going to go when and where over 10 years?”

Details of the report to the Legislature are expected to be finalized no later than Dec. 15 and to be forwarded to members of the Criminal Justice Committee.

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