Budget cuts could affect jail

12 years ago

Budget cuts could affect jail

By Joseph Cyr

Staff Writer

    HOULTON — Could a reduction in staff be in the future for the Aroostook County Jail?

    That was one scenario portrayed by Aroostook County Administrator Doug Beaulieu as he discussed the 2013 fiscal year budget with members of the Aroostook County Commissioners April 3. Beaulieu said the Board of Corrections informed all counties to craft a 2013 fiscal year budget that included a reduction of 1 percent in expenses.

    Beaulieu said considering the Aroostook County Jail’s budget has been overdrawn each of the last four years, coming up with a budget that featured a decrease in spending was virtually impossible without drastic reductions in both the number of inmates the jail housed and the staff it employed.

    The 1 percent cut budget, which was submitted to the BOC on Wednesday, April 4, totaled $3,133,944.

    Beaulieu presented Commissioners with two budgets — one designed to meet the criteria of the BOC of a 1 percent cut; and a second budget that more accurately reflected the current costs. He also gave commissioners a memorandum that he planned to send to the BOC with his 1 percent budget cut. That memo detailed how the cut would impact the Houlton jail.

    “In order to meet the mandate of the BOC and cut our overall budget by 1 percent in FY ‘13, the ACJ and County of Aroostook present the following plan,” he wrote. “With respect to our budget, a cut of 1 percent translates to $31,656. We are presenting this plan to comply with the BOC’s directive. By no means are we suggesting we think this (budget) is in the best interests of the ACJ or the county correctional system.”

    It was anticipated that nine correctional officers would have to be laid off, which would necessitate closing the West Wing of the jail facility. That wing houses 28 minimum to medium security inmates.

    “This would reduce our staff to 15 correctional officers,” he wrote. “From a rated capacity standpoint, this would reduce our jail population from 72 to 44 inmates.”

    Exactly where those inmates would be sent was undetermined. The jail currently has a capacity rating of 72 inmates, but often has more than that requiring incarceration. On any given day, the ACJ “boards out” between 15 and 30 inmates to other county-run facilities in the state.

    If reductions in staff and inmates take place, many of those individuals being incarcerated would have to be taken to a different facility in the state, which would negatively impact those budgets, he said.

    “If this proposal is implemented by the BOC, it will subject the BOC, and possibly other counties, to greater liabilities due to the long-haul nature of the transports to and from Aroostook County,” Beaulieu stated. “The assumption here is that inmates are safer and more secure when they are under lock and key, as opposed to being on the road in a motor vehicle.”

    Beaulieu and the commissioners said they hoped the BOC would reconsider its request of a 1 percent cut once they saw the impact it would have to the ACJ. The County has typically had to build a jail budget that did not cover its expenses in order to meet BOC mandates. In the fiscal year 2009, the ACJ budget was overdrawn by $63,356. That money was taken from the “County Fund Balance” to stabilize the budget. In fiscal year 2010, the ACJ budget was overdrawn by $65,099, while in 2011 it was overdrawn by $14,200.

    For 2012, however, the ACJ budget is projected to be overdrawn by as much as $120,000. Part of that large difference is due to the purchase of two new transport vans (amounting to $62,000), which were approved by the BOC. A three-year contract for employees was also recently approved that featured a 2 percent cost of living increase, resulting in $35,000 in increased costs for salaries and benefits. The food account is also expected to be overdrawn by about $30,000.

    “The ACJ is totally vulnerable at this juncture,” Beaulieu said. “We have no designated or undesignated fund balance to rely on. Every time we are overdrawn in our budget, we have to turn to the BOC for an injection of funding. It is not an ideal arrangement.”

    Beaulieu added correctional officers at the ACJ are among the lowest paid in the system, with the starting rate of pay for guards being $11.97 per hour.

    “The ACJ has been underfunded over the last four fiscal years,” Beaulieu wrote. “This coupled with modest increases in contractual obligations and a recommended 1 percent cut in our overall budget in FY 13, impact the facility in a debilitating manner.”

    The Aroostook County Jail is one of the oldest facilities in the Board of Corrections system, having been built in the late 1800s. Improvements and renovations to the building have taken place in the 1930s, 1960s and 1980s, Beaulieu said.

    A 10-year capital improvement plan is in place for continued upkeep, but no funds are included in the budget to implement infrastructure improvements.

    “It’s an old facility and needs a fair amount of upkeep,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, we have put a fair amount of money into the facility. We are at the point now where we don’t have any money to put into it.”