AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci this weekend defended his proposal to have the state Corrections Department take over the county jails, calling the present system “inefficient and unsustainable” and saying the consolidation idea is nothing new.
In his weekend radio address, Baldacci said Maine now has 16 separate corrections systems. He said his plan will save property taxpayers millions of dollars and keep the state from wasting money on new prisons and jails that aren’t needed.
“The current system is inefficient and unsustainable,” Baldacci said. “People are getting hurt, they aren’t receiving the care they need, and when they do receive it, it’s too expensive, and that burden falls directly onto the back of property taxpayers. The system must change.”
Unifying 15 separate county jails with the state Corrections Department could reduce the overall costs for housing prisoners by $10 million in the first year alone and by 2015, annual savings will grow to almost $38 million, Baldacci said.
He noted that over the last three years, the cost for counties to operate their jails has increased about 12 percent per year. Also during that time, the cost to operate the state prison system has increased about 6 percent per year.
Property taxpayers paid $66 million in 2006 and will pay an estimated $71 million in 2007 to support county jail operations, said Baldacci. “If nothing is done, it will balloon to $148 million – property tax dollars – by 2013,” he said.
Baldacci also said that without a unified system, at least four counties and the state will be forced into borrowing millions of dollars to build new facilities.
Baldacci said that besides saving money and providing better care for prisoners, his plan “will make our communities safer and more secure.”
Proposals calling for a single statewide correctional system have been floating around at least since the 1990s, said Baldacci, who cited a 1997 Privatization Task Force report that makes such a recommendation.
In the Republican response, state Rep. Richard Cebra of Naples said the governor’s plan hasn’t been presented in detail yet, but “we should be skeptical of the claims that centralization will save money.”
Cebra asserted that the administration’s savings projections are premature and overlook such expenses as higher pay for jail personnel if they become state employees and higher transportation costs for rural police departments in counties whose jails would close.
Cebra said the state prison system has had to turn to the counties to house some of its overflow population.
“We must be skeptical of the state’s ability to run a much larger system when they have so much trouble managing what they already have,” Cebra said.
The governor’s proposal also has drawn opposition from officials in counties, especially Somerset, which is in the midst of a $30 million jail construction project.