January 26, 2013

Bill would use state funds to pay off jail construction debt

Would send $9.4 million over two years to the state Board of Corrections for service on jail debt statewide

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Rep. Jeff McCabe is co-sponsoring a bill to allocate money from the state's General Fund to help pay the debt on the state's jails, including the Somerset County Jail.

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Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan

The bill, initiated by Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, would send $4.6 million in the coming fiscal year and $4.8 million in the next one to the state Board of Corrections for service on jail debt statewide.

The money, according to McCabe, a Skowhegan Democrat, represents projected debt payments on county jail construction statewide for the next two years.

Somerset County borrowed $30 million to build the county jail in East Madison in 2008. The annual service on the debt is about $2.55 million. The bond is to be paid off over 20 years.

McCabe said the bill was referred to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, of which Dion is House chairman, and will be heard before the Appropriations Committee before votes in the House and Senate. It would be subject to approval by the governor.

"It would be my hope that it would continue to become part of the biennial budget each year until there isn't a need for the debt service to be paid down," he said.

Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff, said the Maine County Commissioners' Association asked him to present the bill.

"This bill is an opportunity to revisit the funding schedule of the Board of Corrections," Dion said. "Originally, with consolidation, there had been an understanding between state government and county government that operating costs and debt service, above the agreed upon municipal debt, would be underwritten by the state.

"It hasn't happened in a fashion that allows the counties to function in the way they think they should."

Dion said the bill would affect several counties and jails statewide. He said it will provide an opportunity for county administrators and commissioners to sit down with state leaders to "fashion a formula" to pay for county corrections in the future.

Dion said there are elected officials in Augusta who continue to question whether the 2008 consolidation of the state's correctional facilities has lived up to its promise in areas such as centralized purchasing and managing bed capacity.

He said there will be a briefing on the bill Monday with the state Board of Corrections and the Department of Corrections as part of the current budget process.

Somerset County commissioners took part of the jail debt service into their own hands earlier this month when they voted unanimously to use all revenue from the boarding of federal inmates for operations and debt service at the county jail and not share the money with the state.

Commissioners said the state Board of Corrections has no jurisdiction over an agreement between the county and the federal government.

McCabe said the proposed legislation to take money from the general fund for jail debt makes more fiscal sense than Gov. Paul LePage's idea to borrow $100 million to rebuild the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

"We have a county jail that can board federal and state prisoners, and we're not even at capacity," he said. "I would think we would want to fill all the available space statewide before we go out and build a new facility."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367

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