May 21, 2013

Somerset County sues state over withheld $280K jail payment

Suit is latest twist in dispute over county's decision to use federal funds to pay down jail debt

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN — Somerset County filed a civil suit against the state Board of Corrections on Tuesday for payment of more than $280,000 the county contends it is owed for operations at the Somerset County Jail.

click image to enlarge

Somerset County Jail Assistant Administrator Maj. Cory Swope speaks with female inmates at the East Madison jail on Tuesday. Somerset County officials filed a civil action case against the state Board of Corrections for $280,000 in funds the state has withheld in an ongoing dispute with the county.

Staff photo by David Leaming

The petition for review by the Somerset County Superior Court seeks to reverse a unanimous vote by the board in April to withhold the county's third-quarter payment as part of the state's consolidated jail system.

The result of the withheld payment, according to Lee Bragg, who is representing Somerset County in the case, is that county residents paid the bills to run the jail in January, February and March without the promised reimbursement from the state.

"It's cash flow," Bragg said Tuesday. "It's money that's owed to the county and if the debt can't be collected, that puts an extra burden on taxpayers. Somerset County operated the jail for the third quarter, paid the salaries, bought the meals, paid the light bill, and if the state doesn't pay that money then the county gets left paying for it all."

Board of Corrections members said at the April vote that the payment was withheld because Somerset County kept the revenue from the boarding of federal inmates as part of its own jail budget and debt service on jail construction. The board contends that the money instead should have been sent to it to help defray the costs of the statewide jail system.

Bragg disagrees, saying there is no basis in law for withholding the money. He said the money was agreed upon in the 2013 jail budget, which was approved by the Board of Corrections.

The statewide jail system was created under the 2008 Jail Consolidation Act.

The jail budget calls for the state to pay $1.12 million to Somerset County for jail operations in the form of quarterly payments of $280,442. The rest of the jail's expenses, about $4.8 million, is raised by county taxpayers and from "other sources of revenue ... to offset the tax burden," according to the civil suit.

One of those "other sources" of income is a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service for the boarding of federal pre-trial inmates.

"The BOC's position is that all of the federal revenue must be used to offset the state's contribution to correctional services," Bragg said. "Somerset County says it should be shared, based on a resolution adopted by county commissioners in January."

The county receives about $475,000 per year for the boarding of federal inmates.

County commissioners voted 5-0 in January to take the $93 paid daily for each federal inmate and use $22 as the marginal cost of running the jail; $18 would go to a building capital reserve fund, and $53 will be used for debt service on the construction of the jail.

The county commissioners' resolution in January is "reasonable and equitable" and consistent with state law, according to the county's suit.

Michael Tausek, executive director of the Board of Corrections, said the board stands by its votes and will cooperate with the court to reach a fair decision.

"The board feels very comfortable with the decision that's been made and the information it has received from the assistant attorney general's office," Tausek said Tuesday afternoon. "We'll wait for a review, a trier of fact, to review their motion, then we'll proceed from there."

Tausek said he has not yet seen the court papers. He said he expects members of the board will be called to testify in court during the review of the law as it applies to the case and to the state Board of Corrections.

Tausek said the law is not very clear on the matter, but board members took "the totality" of state jail consolidation law into account when it made its decision.

Somerset County Sheriff Barry DeLong said in April that one of the Somerset County Jail's four pods has been closed for renovations and will not reopen until the matter of missing payments from the state is resolved.

Tausek said the board voted earlier this month to fund jails based on their need in the fourth quarter. Somerset County did not ask the board for fourth-quarter funding, Tausek said, and the suit does not address that payment.

In response to the state board, DeLong stopped accepting out-of-county inmates in March, even though the jail is one of four flagship county jails statewide, created under the 2008 Jail Consolidation Act.

Somerset County commissioners also voted in April to downgrade three jail guards working full time to reserve status in the wake of continued conflict with the state over the boarding of inmates.

The maximum capacity at the jail in East Madison is 234 inmates. Population reached a recent high of 180 inmates in October and a new low mark in April with 138, according to Bragg.

The civil suit contends that the Board of Corrections' vote not to make the third quarter payment to Somerset County was an "unlawful procedure" done in the privacy of an executive session, without input from county officials or the public.

The board "failed to explain the factual or legal basis" for refusing to approve the payment, according to the court document. In addition, the board does not have the authority to apply federal revenues received by Somerset County to offset money due from the state, the document reads.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com

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