Building a Unified Corrections System

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2009)
By Irv Faunce

Maine’s beleaguered property taxpayers are going to get relief!

That statement may sound a little startling, but bear with me for awhile.

As the recent legislative session ended, a $140 million tax “shift” was left on the table as a lavish, unwanted “gratuity” to municipalities and property taxpayers.

Its currency was in the form of a reduced homestead exemption, cuts in property tax and rent relief (circuit breaker), lowered revenue sharing, fewer dollars for tree growth reimbursements and a sizeable decrease in the state’s share of general purpose aid to education.

However, unnoticed by much of the public and underneath the radar of most of the news media, the State Board of Corrections was quietly carrying out the purposes mandated in PL 653 enacted in 2008 – An Act to Better Coordinate and Reduce the Cost of the Delivery of State and County Correctional Services.

Namely those purposes are to:

“Develop and implement a unified correctional system that demonstrates sound fiscal management, achieves efficiencies, reduces recidivism and ensures the safety and security of correctional staff, inmates, visitors, volunteers and surrounding communities.”

According to data prepared by the State Planning Office, the Board is succeeding.

Maine property taxpayers will avoid some $189 million in property tax expenditures over the seven-year period between 2008 and 2015 (see accompanying chart). In fact, we taxpayers will not pay more for jail operations than we paid in the 12-month period that ended June 30, 2008. For the state as a whole, that “property tax cap” for county jails is $62.5 million. It is in the law.

Further, according to the SPO, the annual rate of growth of the county correctional system has been reduced from its historical average of 9% to just under one percent (.9%) for FY10.

Major mission changes and downsizings have been implemented at three county jails – Franklin, Oxford and Waldo – that will convert them to 72-hour holding facilities and, in the case of Waldo, to the Coastal Region Reentry Center.

These changes will reduce their total costs by some $1.7 million and redirect those funds into the Board of Corrections Investment Fund where they will be deployed statewide for the development of the system as a whole.

With the prodding of the SBOC and the solid work of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the State of Maine has been held to its commitment to this process. The Legislature is providing some $3 million for the “transition” year of 2009 and an additional $3.5 million general fund appropriation for FY 10.

So, let’s look back at how the State Board of Corrections was formed and how it has worked so diligently on behalf of its varied constituencies of state, county and local government, law enforcement, the judiciary, pre-trial and post-conviction service providers and the public as a whole.

Governor Baldacci took a broad swipe at the County Jail system in early 2008 when he introduced a plan that included the closing of several jails and a state “takeover” of the operations of all the others.

This, of course, was met with the full range of reactions from outright alarm to genuine concern to legitimate questioning of daily logistics such as: “If the Franklin County Jail is closed, where will the Rangeley police (47 miles away from the jail’s site) take arrested people for booking?”

With an eye on the “big picture,” the affected special interests were able to gather and to start talking “compromise,” the most valued word in the political process and, frequently, its most underused tool.

They were all there – sheriffs, jail administrators, county commissioners, Department of Corrections leadership, pre-trial and post conviction service providers, mental health advocates, the Governor’s office, politicians, and, finally, the Maine Municipal Association.

The work was diligent, time consuming and performed under the pressure of the looming legislative adjournment. The concessions were frequent but often painful.

However, the consistency (and persistency) of the MMA position was apparent: this legislation must provide immediate property tax relief that is assured going forward.

The “property tax cap,” now the core dynamic of the county correctional system budget development process, is in place in the law.

Property Tax Assessment

It is important, at this point, for municipalities to know that the integrity of the tax cap has been firmly held in place and respected by the SBOC. Some counties pointed out that errors had been made (often by them) in the computation of the cap. Kennebec, for instance, did not include the costs for its pre-trial services contract in its calculations. Nonetheless, the Board showed no interest in legislation that would revise the caps or in any activity to open up that discussion.

Somerset County, because it had only eight months of operations in its new jail when the cap was put into place, was specifically mentioned in PL 653 as a county that could have its cap adjusted after more experience with operations. In fact, it is likely that there will be a downward adjustment in the Somerset cap.

Property taxes for the support of county jail operations are capped at these levels: Androscoggin, $4,287,340; Aroostook, $2,316,666; Cumberland, $11,575,602; Franklin, $1,621,020; Hancock, $1,670,136; Kennebec, $5,588,343; Knox, $3,188,700; Lincoln, $3,018,361; Oxford, $1,228,757; Penobscot, $5,919,118; Piscataquis, $878,940; Sagadahoc, $2,295,849; Somerset, $5,363,665; Waldo, $2,832,353; Washington, $2,000,525.

Franklin County presents an example of how the tax cap works. The property tax cap in that county is $1.6 million. The jail “mission” has been changed from its traditional use to that of a 72-hour holding facility, thereby dropping the annual operating cost to approximately $950,000. The county must still assess and collect the “cap” of $1.6 million. The $650,000 difference is paid by the county into the Board of Corrections Investment Fund, which is defined in the law as an “enterprise fund.”

 

The SBOC has voted that this Investment Fund will not be available for the support of routine jail operations, but will be utilized for capital investment, emergency expenditures and for payment of the marginal costs of boarding of county prisoners within the county system, during FY10.

With enactment of the law in June 2008, the Governor reached out to MMA, the Maine County Commissioners Association and the Maine Sheriffs Association, as well as to the general public for nominations to the first Board of Corrections. The Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety approved and sent these names to the State Senate where they were confirmed (Note: one seat is vacant).

Public at Large

Chair Neale Duffett of Portland, Attorney
Tom Brown of Bangor, Attorney
Tim King of Ellsworth, Washington-Hancock Community Action Agency CEO

County Commissioners Association

George Jabar of Waterville, Attorney and Kennebec County Commissioner

Sheriffs Association

Scott Story of Belfast, Waldo County Sheriff

Maine Municipal Association

Irv Faunce of Wilton, Blueberry Farmer and Selectman

State Planning Office

Martha Freeman of Hallowell, SPO Director

State Department of Corrections

Marty Magnuson of Rangeley, DOC Commissioner

While the Board is the most visible component of the “One Maine/One System” model that it has adopted, much of its preliminary work has been accomplished under the direction of the Corrections Working Group, chaired by Denise Lord, Associate Commissioner of Corrections, and Todd Brackett, Lincoln County Sheriff. The CWG membership is comprised equally of state and county members.

The CWG coordinates “Focus Groups” on Information Technology, Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Medical Care and Pharmacy, Adult Education, Pre-Trial/Diversion/Alternative Sentencing, Victim Services and Transportation. All members are volunteers.

When organized in the fall of ‘08, the immediate focus of the SBOC became the preparation and analysis of FY10 operating budgets for the 15 county correctional facilities (Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties are partners in the Two Bridges Regional Jail).

The first presentation of numbers was distressing. The county jails called for additional spending of $7 million in FY10 and $11 million for FY 11, increases of 11% and 7% respectively.

A process of budget “scrubbing” was immediately implemented under the direction of Department of Corrections Financial Officer Scott Ferguson and Operations Chief Ralph Nichols.

In the meantime, SBOC chair Neale Duffett, and other board members, continued their legislative efforts to support the $3.5 million general fund appropriation that would be necessary to fully fund the reduced budgetary goals. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee appeared in the Board’s support in front of the Appropriations Committee, assuring a united front that led to enactment of the funding legislation.

For now, the property tax cap and spending levels are both safe and adequate, However, the dark cloud on the horizon is the second year of the biennium (FY11) for which no funding above the $62.5 million has been allocated.

Chair Duffett reflected both a sense of accomplishment and a realization of the challenges ahead in a recent communication to Board members:

“Our mutual task has been a challenging and a rapid climb up a very steep learning curve, as we faced countless social, economic, political, and legal issues. The Board has had no instruction manual on how to build a consolidated corrections system, yet the Board was required to make crucial decisions under intense time pressure. Now, the State’s fiscal crisis will only make our mutual work much harder.”

Among the accomplishments that the chair cited were:

• Creation of a transportation hub pilot project that serves the northern part of the state and could be replicated statewide;

• Joint purchase of pharmacy and medical services and establishment of July 2011 as the target date for implementation of single statewide contracts for both;

• An anticipated grant award to support a statewide pre-trial coordinator and expansion and improvement of pre-trail services;

• Draft policies to improve victim notification;

• Enactment of legislation that enhances home-release programs;

• The creation of a statewide bed utilization and reserve system;

• The elimination of boarding fees in FY11.

As the State Board of Corrections heads into its second year of existence, its priorities, in addition to preparation of FY11 operating budgets for the county jails are:

1) The development of a capital needs assessment and capital improvement plan for the state and county corrections system;

2) PL 653 mandates a Certificate of Need process through which capital expenditures for the state and county corrections system must be carefully justified by counties and the state, and ultimately approved by the Board. This process will be designed and the rules under which it will operate will be drafted, submitted to public comment and adopted by the Board;

3) It is clear that video arraignment is a potential major cost saver for county jails and for the court system. Its implementation in Maine has been patchy. In fact, three large counties – Androscoggin, Cumberland and Penobscot – do not have video arraignment capability. While there are many obstacles to overcome such as cross-county arraignments, orderly handling of files and, in some cases, the purchase of equipment, the Board’s is actively working with the courts, judiciary, prosecutors and counties to have a statewide video arraignment system in place in the near future.

As we move forward into that future, the design and implementation of a corrections system that is truly efficient, integrated, and humane will stay at the top of the agenda as will the provision of these services within the property tax cap established by this pioneering legislation.

Irv Faunce is Wilton Selectman, blueberry farmer, and member of the State Board of Corrections..