SKOWHEGAN – Members of the Somerset County budget committee unanimously passed the county’s proposed $5.9 million budget Monday night but not before they did some last-minute tweaking.
The budget represents a 6.9 percent increase, which was being pushed by increased jail costs and the rising costs of boarding prisoners.
Aside from county commissioners and county department heads, just a handful of residents attended the public hearing.
The committee responded to an 11th-hour plea by District Attorney Evert Fowle to restore $4,000 cut from his budget for lease of an office at the Skowhegan district courthouse. The committee had originally cut the office lease, stating there was already enough space across the street in the district attorney’s offices in the Somerset County Courthouse.
Although they did not return the full $4,000 to the budget, they recognized Fowle’s need and suggested he trim his planned computer purchases to be able to pay the rent.
Fowle told the committee, “It is critically important that we have that office.” He said that when both Superior and District courts are running, a third assistant district attorney uses the office. The domestic violence investigator also uses the office five days a week. He said that on a busy day, 125 arraignments could be held and trials could number 60.
“But even more important than the district attorney’s office being inconvenienced is that on trial days, we have witnesses and victims of crime in the courthouse,” said Fowle. “It is hard enough to get these victims to come to court and testify. If they have to sit across the hallway from whoever victimized them, it will be even harder. We offer them sanctuary.”
Fowle said it was important to keep the rental amount in perspective, noting that a similar space at Waterville District Court costs $10,100 a year, while the Skowhegan District Court space is $4,000.
The committee ended up adding $2,000 to the rent account but decreasing the district attorney’s office equipment account by $3,000.
After the meeting Fowle said, “Tonight I traded two computers to make sure my victims of crime are safe, a trade I’ll make any day.”
There was also a failed attempt to cut the jail budget by $10,000.
Already decreased from the department’s request of $350,000 to the commissioner’s recommendation of $275,000, the budget committee had reduced the account to $250,000 at previous meetings. Vice Chairman Phil Roy pursued chopping another $10,000.
Roy said that a new part-time position in the sheriff’s department is intended to look at alternative sentencing programs that will ultimately decrease the costs to the county of boarding prisoners.
Jail Administrator Steven Giggey strenuously objected, stating that “$250,000 isn’t even enough.” He said that because of prisoner limitations and overcrowding, the county was boarding out 11 prisoners Monday – at a cost of $110 each per day.
“This is just not enough money,” he asserted.
State regulators only allow Somerset County to house 55 inmates daily, based on a Department of Corrections variance, while Sheriff Barry DeLong said this week the jail has been averaging 93 inmates a day for the past three months.