Hamstrung by budget restrictions, county struggles to fund jail

By Dan Otis Smith | Oct 18, 2016
Source: File Photo

Rockland — Knox County Jail needs repairs.

Since at least 2012, the jail’s control system, operated from a room full of control panels, surveillance monitors and computers, has been failing. Years ago, workers repairing a leaky roof installed screws in the ceiling that damaged wiring, leading the jail to install a digital control system, which cannot control the analog system of locks. As a result, guards must use keys to manually lock and unlock doors. The security cameras do not function properly. And the HVAC and lighting systems need updating.

While simple locks and keys may sound like a sufficient security measure, one consequence of the system malfunction has been that certain areas of the jail have lost “interlocking” capability because of the failure of the remote locking system, Jail Administrator Maj. John Hinkley said. When a room with two doors is interlocked, each door can only be opened when the other is closed and locked. In the current situation, both doors in certain areas of the jail could be left unlocked or open, creating a gap in security.

Hinkley said the company that installed the system would no longer do repairs – the required parts no longer exist.

Sheriff Donna Dennison said the jail’s cameras can only collect footage for a week and a half or so before they begin copying over old video. Movable exterior cameras no longer move in as many directions as they should.

All of this means Knox County Jail fails to meet standards set by the Maine Department of Corrections. Currently, the jail operates under a variance in order to stay open. Hinkley said the jail wouldn’t be open if it weren’t safe, but a condition of the variance is that the county must take action to correct the situation.

Meanwhile, the facility has had to eliminate positions in an effort to stay under budget.

Despite these longstanding issues, Dennison and Hinkley did not blame the County Commission for failing to provide adequate funding for repairs and personnel costs. No matter how badly the county commissioners might want to allocate the extra $1.5 million needed for repairs, their jail expenditures were capped by a 2006 state law meant to unify the county jail and state prison systems. For several years, Knox County could not raise its jail budget above the 2006 level of $3,188,000. The law has failed, as have multiple attempts to fix it, but in the meantime, counties statewide remain without full authority to fund their jails.

In 2015, the state Legislature voted to allow counties to increase their jail budgets by the property growth factor, or 3 percent, whichever is less. The property growth factor is the figure used to determine how much counties can raise property tax assessments based on the increase in property values, and governs increases in the overall county budget. But at least as of now, it still is not enough.

A proposal in the 2017 Knox County Budget Draft has the county paying $175,000 per year for 10 years in a lease-purchase agreement to install a new jail control system, but that amount puts the county over its 3 percent limit on tax assessment increases for the jail budget. An alternative sees the county paying $133,000 per year for 15 years. But as became clear in a meeting of the Knox County Commission Oct. 11, commissioners are hesitant to commit to a decade or more of budget expenditures without knowing whether the Legislature may again make changes to how county jails are administered and funded.

“I’d hate to hang ourselves out for $1.5 million,” Commissioner Richard Parent said at the meeting, referring to the possibility that the state could again seek control of the county jail system and refuse to reimburse Knox County for maintenance expenditures it had already promised. “It would be easier to decide if we knew we were going to rely on this stuff for the next 25 years, but we don’t know that.”

Ultimately, commissioners decided to put off for the time being any commitment to funding jail maintenance. Parent made reference to the elusive “crystal ball” which might reveal coming actions by the Legislature, a symbol which comes up frequently in discussions of the future of the jail.

County officials had considered contracting with Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset and turning Knox County Jail into a 72-hour holding and inmate re-entry facility, which would allow it to continue operating in some capacity without being held to the state standards it currently struggles to meet. Initial court appearances for inmates held at Two Bridges would be beamed by video into Knox County Unified Court. It is also a solution that would keep the jail’s roughly 35 jobs. Two Bridges already holds inmates from Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties and contracts with Waldo County. But upon further examination, officials determined that the arrangement would end up saving little or no money compared to moving forward with jail maintenance.

Already, the Maine Municipal Association plans to propose initiatives to the Legislature including laws to return jail authority to the state and solidify caps on property taxes. Knox County Commissioner Roger Moody, meanwhile, said most counties and sheriff’s offices would probably prefer to return more direct authority over jails and jail funding to county government.

Caught between the priorities of state, county, and municipal governments, the future of Knox County Jail remains uncertain.

Reporter Dan Otis Smith can be reached at 594-4401 x123 or by email at dsmith@villagesoup.com.

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