April 07, 2020

Belfast manager says cost sharing key to jail issue

BELFAST – City Manager Terry St. Peter believes that the best way to reduce the tax burden of running the Waldo County Jail would be to share jail costs with neighboring counties.

St. Peter informed the City Council in this week’s manager’s report that his suggestion was in reply to a query posed to municipal leaders by Waldo County Commission Chairman John Hyk.

In his letter, Hyk asked officials for proposed solutions to the jail situation. The county attempted to convince taxpayers three years ago to spend $18 million for a new jail, but that proposal was soundly rejected by the voters.

“If you agree,” St. Peter asked the council, “I would like to suggest that Waldo County seek to have conversations with one of its neighboring counties, especially Knox or Penobscot, to join in having a shared jail.”

The 33-bed county jail is already overcrowded and the county will spend nearly $1 million this year boarding prisoners at other county facilities.

The jail is allowed to house inmates beyond the 19 beds it was originally designed for under a waiver from the Maine Department of Corrections. But the DOC is expected to cancel the variance sometime next year.

Knox County is in a similar bind. It’s 55-bed jail is filled to capacity, and county inmates are being boarded in other facilities. The Knox commissioners have hired a consultant to review the possibility of building a new jail, or adding to the existing one.

Despite the growing cost to house prisoners outside the county, St. Peter said it was still cheaper than the cost to build and manage a new jail. He estimated that it would take a minimum of $2 million a year to cover the debt service and operating costs for a new jail.

“Clearly, Waldo County cannot afford $2 million more each year on top of the existing, already very high county budget,” St. Peter advised the council.

St. Peter pointed out that changes in state law and judicial system policies had placed an added burden on county jails. He said most of the state’s counties were grappling with crowding problems and that now was the time to consider talking with each other about the issue.

“If the towns in Waldo and Knox can agree to work together on economic development, surely the counties can work together on providing corrections services,” he said.

St. Peter argued that distance for relatives was no longer an issue when considering jails. He said jails were built in separate counties long before the advent of the automobile.

He said it should not seem out of the question to expect family members to visit prisoners in Rockland, Bangor or some place in between. He said that for many county residents a regional jail on the county line would be closer than a jail in Belfast.

St. Peter pointed out that the county already had spent tens of thousands of dollars retrofitting the existing jail. He suggested that the county continue to maintain the jail for prisoners needing quick access to the courts, while a regional jail could be used for those serving long sentences.

He also suggested that the state should be pressed to play a role in assisting county jails. It was state government that established the rules of incarceration that have resulted in increases in the number of prisoners, he said.

St. Peter said the law should be changed to require the state to share in the costs. He said expecting the property tax to cover the cost of the jails was inappropriate.

“The property tax is not the appropriate tax to support a jail system,” he concluded. “The state pays for its correctional system through the sales and income tax but looks to the property tax to pay for county jails. The state ought to either assume those costs or help out. It seems to me that we ought to join forces with other counties to develop legislation for a statewide bond issue to relieve the property tax.”

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