“The past three weeks have been bizarre,” said Capt. Ed Quinn, jail administrator for the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office. “In my discussions with other jail administrators around the state, they, too, have faced certain challenges we’ve never faced before. All of us.

“Right now, the biggest issue is the head counts of the population that we’re being asked to house. And Oxford’s problematic thing is keeping that housing flowing, when the other jails are starting to fill up with their own problem inmates and their own problem head counts.”

Quinn is taking aim at the sudden statewide surge in jail occupancy, and that latest wrinkle exacerbates an already-complicated relationship between Oxford and other counties with the state government paying only occasional attention.

“Probably the era we’re in now began in the 2008-2009 range,” said County Administrator Scott Cole. “During Governor Baldacci’s second term, they came up with this idea called jail consolidation, with the goal of property tax control, and to relieve overcrowding, which leads to inmate aggression and correction officer injury. Everybody loses on overcrowding. And the third piece was to enhance correctional programs for those behind bars.”

Cole said the overall theory came from a conclusion that Maine had excess jail capacity, “but not where you needed it.”

Oxford was one of three Maine counties that had its jails downgraded to 72-hour maximum residency in 2009. Those requiring housing for more than three days have to be placed elsewhere. Nearby Androscoggin County is at capacity, so Oxford County transfers prisoners back and forth to Portland in Cumberland County.

“I think our high count of ownership of those under Oxford County’s charge this week was the highest at 68 total in the facilities,” Quinn said.

He said the division was 10 at the Oxford County Jail but 58 were at Cumberland County’s jail.

“That’s very high because when we began last July, considering many years of statistics to come up with a number of average, we were at 33 to 34 a day,” Quinn said. “Now all of a sudden, as of December through March, we’re at the 58 to 60 mark. And they’re filling up.”

Cumberland County charges Oxford County $50 per day to house its prisoners as of last July, but that fee wasn’t in the original 2009 legislative formula.

“Everything went to hell last July,” Cole said. “Cumberland County came down and said, ‘If we don’t get money from you guys directly, we’re going to bring your inmates back up and put them in your parking lot.’ We coughed up the money. We’ve been paying $137,000 a quarter to Cumberland County since last July to avoid a debacle. We really are between a rock and a hard place. We don’t have the floor space, we don’t have the staff, and so we just can’t take the inmates.”

The structure that took effect in 2009 included a fixed tax cap that counties could charge its towns, and ultimately the citizens, for funding jails.

Cole wrote the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Feb. 29 requesting a raise in that tax cap to $2,022,733, an increase of $757,000 annually.

“If enacted, Oxford’s so-called jail tax cap would be raised from 18 cents (per thousand) to 29 cents (per thousand), the rate already levied by Cumberland for that county’s jail purposes,” Cole wrote in the letter.

Cole pointed out that the 18-cent rate is the lowest in the state and “is a bargain.”

Cole wrote that Oxford County would not have sufficient funds to run a deficit in 2017, and that “failure to increase the cap ahead of February 2017 tax commitment will trigger insolvency later in that year.”

Cole’s case is that the current funding only covers local costs, but is not sufficient to pay for housing at other jails to hold prisoners longer than the local 72-hour limit.

Only Hancock County’s corrections system is more disadvantaged than that of Oxford. Hancock’s expenses are 66 percent greater than its funding, while Oxford’s expenses are 53.5 percent greater than its income. Somerset’s jail has the state’s best-packed vault as of the end of February, with funding about 175 percent greater than expenses. Somerset receives about 6.17 percent of the state’s $12.2 million jail funding distribution. Oxford County’s share is 2.44 percent.

So there is encouragement to retweak the distribution numbers rather than raising the tax cap for jail administration costs.

One of those promoting amiable reconciliation is Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, who represents Norway, Sweden, Waterford and West Paris.

“I’m of the opinion that if the people involved can come up with an honest solution, then that’s probably better than having the Legislature imposing one on them,” Winsor said.

Winsor said he was fearful that if an across-the-state county corrections tax cap was raised, Cumberland county could react by raising its per-diem rate for housing Oxford County’s prisoners.

“I think there’s no fooling here that the situation as it exists today from Oxford County’s point of view is unworkable,” Winsor said. “You can’t spend $700,000 a year more than you can budget for. Under the current law, you don’t even have the option of raising local taxes to cover the cost. The county commissioners recognize that, and I’m certainly willing to recommend to the Budget Committee that we allow the cap to go higher, but that’s a local decision people have to deal with.

“We have an obligation to house our prisoners in an appropriate setting, and you can’t do it for nothing,” he said. “I think it’s probably economical to house them in a jail that is modern and has facilities for medical benefits and other prisoner needs. Oxford has been a 72-hour holding facility for five to six years. To bring it back to a full-time jail would require some capital improvements, and I’m not sure they could do it for an affordable price right now.”

Cole said the total budget Oxford County needs for its corrections program is about $2.2 million per year with a 72-hour lockup.

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