November 2, 2012

Somerset County Commissioners candidates want jail revenues to pay off debt

District 2 candidates support legislation to enable paying off jail construction with money from housing out-of-county inmates

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Two candidates running for the District 2 seat on the board of Somerset County Commissioners say they want to see legislation allowing the county to use revenues from the jail to offset the debt it took to build it.

Somerset County District 2
Anson, Embden, Highland Plantation, Madison, Mercer, New Portland, Starks, Lexington Township and Northwest Somerset organized territory.

Robert Dunphy, of Embden, the current chairman of the five-member board, is being challenged by H. Ralph Withee, of Anson, a longtime selectman in that town.

Both candidates say that the tax base in Somerset County is the most important issue this year and both said that being able to use money received from boarding out-of-county jail inmates is the place to start.

"When we built the jail, it was built on the promise that the money we take in for boarding prisoners would help offset paying for the construction of the jail," Withee said. "The Baldacci administration took that money away and paid us very little; taxes had to make up the difference. We're getting only a percentage of what we should be getting. We should work with the Legislature to get it back."

In April 2008, the Legislature, at the urging of then-Gov. John Baldacci, created a state Board of Corrections that would oversee a unified state and county correctional system and capped the amount counties could raise from taxes to support corrections.

The state was to pay what the counties couldn't cover. The aim of the move was to freeze jail costs.

More than four years after plans for a new jail were approved as part of a state-mandated county jail consolidation plan, county officials say the county continues to pay an unfair share of jail operations and bond payments for construction.

Dunphy, too, said paying the debt on the jail should come from boarding out-of-county inmates, as it was intended.

"We need to change the law -- or change the Board of Corrections -- on what we can do with our revenues," he said. "It's county income, not state income. We should be able to use the revenues where we think we need, which would be to lower the bond debt, which would reduce taxes immensely. The Board of Corrections law doesn't allow us to do that."

A new five-member county commissioners board took effect Jan. 1, based on the county charter passed by voters in 2010. The board previously had three districts and three county commissioners.

Voters also approved a county charter amendment that extends the term of office for each of the five county commissioners from three years to four.

Under the new charter, the initial term of office for the commissioner representing Districts 1 and 2 -- Gerald York of Fairfield in District 1 and Dunphy in District 2-- expire at the end of this year.

York is challenged for his seat on the commission by former commission Chairman Phil Roy of Fairfield.

The initial term of office for the commissioner representing Districts 3, 4 and 5 -- Robin Frost of Palmyra, Lynda Quinn of Skowhegan and Lloyd Trafton of West Forks -- will expire on Dec. 31, 2014.

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com

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