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Maine lawmakers struggle to find funding solution for county jails

by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor Sun Journal April 24, 2015

AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are struggling to find a solution for a looming county jail funding crisis that's being driven in part by a dysfunctional Board of Corrections.

The Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday discussed legislation offered by state Rep. Ricky Long, R-Sherman, that would return control of the jails, along with most of the related costs, to county governments.

Long's proposal would gradually ratchet down the amount of funding the state provides to help finance jails, Long said.

His bill also eliminates the Board of Corrections and gradually removes a county property tax cap that was put in place under the 2008 law that created the board and a funding scheme that sends about $14.6 million a year from the state to the county. 

Some lawmakers on the panel voiced frustration that the proposed changes could wipe out seven years of work that led to more collaboration and cost-saving among county jails. Others said Long's bill would eventually put the full expense of jails back on county governments and property taxes.

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, said he wasn't confident the proposals lawmakers had come up with to solve the funding and control issues for jails would work if they were passed.

Chenette said he could support implementing the first year of Long's proposal to see what its impact might be at the local level.

"We are basically just sort of throwing darts at a board, blindfolded, and hoping it will hit the board," Chenette said. He said that he hoped his colleagues on the committee recognized the change back to total county control with the elimination of the property tax caps meant they would be voting to raise property taxes.

Long said there was little doubt that's what they were doing and noted the change for his county, Aroostook, could mean as much as a 55 percent property tax increase. Long said he did the math on his own property tax bill and figured his tax would increase by $20 a year under the proposal.

Others said they could support a short-term solution, with the possibility of making adjustments in the next lawmaking session.  

State Rep. James Davitt, D-Hampden, said he appreciated Long's effort to craft a solution and his proposal to give the counties what Long called "a soft landing," but Davitt also voiced frustration that recommendations on what the state should do — other than eliminate the Board of Corrections — were few and far between.

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