April 08, 2020

King eyes new prison Down East > Governor’s proposal surprises lawmakers

AUGUSTA — Gov. Angus King has recommended adding a new 200-bed prison in Washington County, surprising the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Wednesday with a decision he made that morning that would alter a corrections plan it has been considering for weeks.

“At 12 o’clock we were looking at a plan that was going to cost $160 million, and at 12:15 it’s going to cost $175 million,” said Rep. George Kerr, D-Old Orchard Beach, co-chair of the committee, after hearing the corrections commissioner describe King’s decision.

Rep. Martha Bagley, D-Machias, was amazed for a different reason. When she heard that the governor was recommending that jobs be added Down East, rather than taken away as a task force had recommended, she was so delighted that she asked to be “scraped off the ceiling.”

Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said the additional cost for the prison would be $10 million to $12 million.

The proposal is meant to provide an economic boost to the troubled Down East economy, which has a much higher unemployment rate than counties in southern Maine. Several legislators had lobbied against the suggestion in the plan that the prison in Bucks Harbor be closed, since the loss of 72 jobs would be a blow to the area.

The new prison, the exact site of which is undetermined, could provide 101 new jobs, King said. “If I’m serious about economic development of rural Maine and Washington County I need to put my money where my mouth is,” he said Wednesday evening.

He had been thinking about it for a long time, he said, because he believes decisions have to be made according to the bottom line, “but there is discretion at the margins. I hope the Legislature agrees that there are values and paybacks that don’t necessarily show up in the bottom line but that are nonetheless important.”

In the end, King said, he made his decision because “I could not reconcile promoting Washington County as a destination for new businesses and not do what I was urging others to do.”

The announcement was a surprise to Appropriations and Criminal Justice Committee members who attended a joint work session to hear about the five-year plan to consolidate the prison system, improve treatment, and expand the probation and parole services available to communities.

Although most legislators agree that the expensive and inefficient prison system is desperately in need of an overhaul, the task force plan has been criticized for its cost, and for its recommendation that two prisons in the southern part of the state be the cornerstone of the system.

Sen. Michael Michaud, D-Millinocket, the Senate chair of the appropriations committee, said it was obviously a political decision to add a prison in Washington County. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad — we have to evaluate it on its merits — but it caught a lot of people by surprise.”

Michaud predicted that the whole “Correctional Facilities Capital Plan” won’t pass — “$160 million is way too much to bond,” — but that pieces of it will be phased in. He was frustrated that the report was “clearly written by people from the southern part of the state,” and said he’ll be looking at the final, 800-page report carefully to see that services are available throughout the state.

Curtiss Pulitzer of Pulitzer-Bogard Associates, a member of the task force, said it had not included a new prison in Washington County in its plan because the task force had been asked to create the most cost-efficient system, not to consider politics or economic development.

Sen. Robert Murray, D-Bangor, co-chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said he’s not sure whether prisons as a means of growth for a region is a good idea in general, but he was worried that the overall plan suggested removing jobs from an area that is struggling.

King said that another option would be to keep the prison in Bucks Harbor open, but it wastes so much money that in the long run it will be more economical to build a new facility. He said the new prison would have 150 beds for minimum-security inmates and about 50 beds for inmates who are soon to be released into the community. He’s not sure where in Washington County it would be, although the Machias area has been recommended to him, he said.

Charles Colgan, an economist and professor at the University of Southern Maine, told members of the two committees that the $160 million plan makes good economic sense based on a conservative cost-benefit analysis, and that it will still “work out on the plus side,” with the addition of a new prison Down East.

Legislators such as George Bunker of Kossuth Township were happy that the governor “took a stand like this to say that rural areas, the areas most in need, should be the priority.”

Others on the appropriations and criminal justice committees were more cautious, saying that they are waiting for figures and more concrete details. When Pulitzer asked how much time he had to make his presentation promoting the entire corrections plan, Kerr said dryly, “Don’t think you’ve got all the votes here — so take your time and explain it — you’re gonna need it.”

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