AUGUSTA — With the resignations of one member of the Maine Board of Corrections and its only two staff members, county jails could be facing a critical funding shortage.

The board, down to two members, lacks a quorum to do its business, including authorizing state funding for county jails.

Amy Fowler, a Waldo County commissioner, resigned from the board effective Tuesday, Jan. 13. Mallory Pollard, a financial analyst, resigned in mid-December. The board’s executive director, Ryan Thornell, will leave Jan. 28.

Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday he had no intention of making new appointments to the board. He expressed frustration that a revamped state-county partnership, the result of a 2008 law change, had failed to produce the efficiencies it was intended to in the jail system.

“I do not take good money and throw it after bad,” LePage said.

He said it would be up to the Legislature to initiate a solution to the problem.

“As soon as the Legislature recognizes we should sit down and fix it, I’m right there to fix it,” LePage said.

He said the current structure leaves neither state government nor county government fully accountable for costs and he suggested those costs were growing beyond reason.

“That system is made to fail; it cannot work the way it is set up,” LePage said. “The way it’s set up is you get the operators of the jail to make all the decisions and then you send the bill to the governor. Well, I’m telling you, that’s not how you run a business.”

He added, “You cannot have two bosses; it doesn’t work.”

LePage’s statements, coupled with the recent resignations, drew mixed reactions from state lawmakers, including those who will oversee the state’s next budget and those who serve or have served on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Jails statewide are facing a $2.5 million funding shortfall with about $700,000 of that debt coming from Aroostook County’s jail.

State Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he was concerned that jail would run out of funds.

One of the 2008 changes involved moving inmates around based on available space under a Board of Corrections-managed program. The law change also capped the amount of property tax counties could levy to pay for jails.

“I don’t know what we will do in Aroostook,” Martin said. “I think we have taken prisoners from other counties and it may well be the only avenue we have is to release prisoners.”

Martin said that without money to pay for inmates’ food or medical care or to pay staff, county jails would be left with few options. Without emergency legislation, the earliest the state could address the problem would be July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, but many jails could run out of money by April, he said.

He said he didn’t believe a fully staffed Board of Corrections would be necessary to solve the problem, but it was unclear whether LePage intended to keep funding jails or counties would regain control and take back the costs.

The Board of Corrections on Monday voted to allow Franklin County to reopen its jail full time. Under the law change, the jail was reduced to a 72-hour holding facility with inmates who were serving sentences for crimes being shipped to other counties. That decision came before the third board member stepped down.

State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who chaired the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in 2014, said the Legislature tried to give counties as much control of jails as possible in law changes passed last year.

Dion, a former Cumberland County Sheriff, said his concern was how jails would be funded going forward and whether or not costs previously covered by the state would be pushed back to county taxpayers.

He said the problem presents a significant challenge for lawmakers.

“How quickly will we react as a Legislature and are municipal and county governments prepared to deal with this?” Dion asked. 

He said he believed LePage wants to return the operation and funding of county jails to county governments.

“He declared as much in his inaugural speech,” Dion said. “So it appears the lack of appointments has short-circuited the ability of the Board of Corrections to do anything of substance until the Legislature addresses this.”

State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, the ranking Democrat on the Criminal Justice Committee, suggested that it may be best to return control of and funding for jails to county government.

Gerzofsky, who worked with Dion in 2014 to usher through changes that allowed greater flexibility for county jails, said he was equally frustrated with the persistent funding shortfalls. He suggested some county governments were not appropriately using state funds.

“We have three choices,” Gerzofsky said. “We can try and fix what the counties have been trying to destroy; you can give it back to the counties, which is what they apparently want, and let them raise the property tax substantially to pay for it; or you can let the state take it over.”

The system is not sustainable the way it is, he said.

He said one of the original reasons behind consolidating state and county corrections operations was to “stop the counties from using the jails as cash cows, which is what they were doing.”

State Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, who represents Franklin County, said the system has failed.

“And we have put lots of money trying to correct a mistake from the beginning,” Saviello said. “The intentions were right, but they didn’t take into full consideration what would happen.”

Saviello said he believes lawmakers should try to move quickly on the issue.

“As much as, sometimes, the governor and I disagree,” Saviello said, “I totally agree with him on this one. We need to look at how we take care of our prisoners.”

The Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.

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