ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Budget Advisory Committee Nov. 4 approved a proposed jail budget for FY 2016 that has a $62,655 shortfall.
Proposed jail expenditures total $2,352,535.
The shortfall is due in part to a lack of adequate state funding for jail operations. An effort to consolidate the county jails with the Maine Department of Corrections ended this year.
Part of the consolidation included legislation that capped property tax funding of county jails at 2008 levels. Meanwhile, the cost of nearly everything went up, leaving significant gaps in jail budgets.
So, Hancock County is not alone in its shortfall.
“Six years of flat funding has really made it difficult,” said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry.
A piece of legislation from 2005 called LD 1 is a factor. LD 1 limits county tax assessments and local property taxes to each county’s income and population growth.
Merry said counties can’t raise funds for correctional expenses any higher than the LD 1 growth rate or 3 percent, whichever is lowest.
Meanwhile, the Hancock County Jail is trying to reduce costs through a number of ways, including an ankle monitoring program.
Inmates who have served a third of their sentence and meet other requirements can pay a fee to wear an ankle bracelet, live at home and hold a job.
However, Jail Administrator Tim Richardson said participation is low because there is a lack of sentenced inmates. Of 58 inmates, 47 of them are awaiting trial and thus are ineligible for the program.
The lack of sentenced inmates is due in part to a lack of trial judges.
In Hancock County, the average wait for trial is 365 days. However there are inmates statewide who have waited 1,000 days for trial, Richardson said.
Mary Ann Lynch, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said, “We have had five judge vacancies since the spring and seven vacancies since the summer — more than 10 percent of the trial judges. This has unquestionably affected our ability to process cases in the past year.”
The vacancies are attributed to three things: retirements, appointments from the District Court to the Superior Court and the creation of two new District Court judicial positions, Lynch said.
“The Governor appointed District Court judges to the Superior Court vacancies, thus filling the Superior Court vacancies, but creating new vacancies on the District Court,” Lynch said. “In addition, the Legislature created two new District Court judge positions that are yet to be filled.”
The Governor recently nominated four prospective judges to fill District Court vacancies. The Legislature is scheduled to vote on those Nov. 19.
“After that vote, assuming all 4 are confirmed, there will be three remaining vacancies,” Lynch said.
Lynch said district attorneys are a factor in trial times also, especially if the offices are short-staffed.
Hancock County District Attorney Matt Foster, whose budget was reviewed before the jail’s Nov. 4, said his office is dealing with a bigger workload than years past.
“It’s not necessarily the number of cases,” Foster said. “It’s an increase in the workload associated with each of those crimes.”
Foster used the example of drunk driving prosecutions. A decade ago, those cases might have taken a prosecutor 10 hours, he said. Now, prosecutors might spend 30 to 40 hours on such a case.
“Defense attorneys require a multitude of information. We are required to get experts to talk to other experts,” Foster said. “My staff has to find those experts. Defense attorneys are looking for 911 tapes. They look for criminal records of police officers from years and years ago.”
Toward the end of the jail budget discussion, the Hancock County Commissioners said they may make up the jail’s shortfall with community benefit funds.
However, at least one member of the Budget Advisory Committee disagreed.
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate use for that community benefit money,” said Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville), who is the legislative member of the committee. “It’s better used as an investment.”
Investing in a project provides the county a bigger return on its investment than funding an operational shortfall, Chapman said.
“Normally I would agree with you,” said committee member Jim Schatz. “But it would fill a one-time hole due to the Legislature underfunding a mandate.”
Committee member Fred Ehrlenbach suggested the county use community benefit funds for the shortfall but replace the money if the state comes up with any supplemental jail funding.
There is a “high likelihood” of supplemental state funding for the jails, Chapman said. “As rough as it is for us in Hancock County, it’s much worse in other counties. I think there’s enough political will statewide to do something about it.”
The county’s new fiscal year starts Jan. 1, 2016.