Maine Townsman, May 2002)
Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

Some eye-popping increases in proposed county budgets this year have brought pointed questions from municipal officials, and revived an old debate about how this ancient but often ill-defined form of government should be managed.

The biggest increases – and the biggest controversies – are taking place, as one might expect, in the fastest-growing counties, particularly York and Cumberland, although lively discussions are continuing in several other coastal counties, including Sagadahoc and Hancock.

York has been particularly hard-hit, with a proposed 30 percent increase on top more than a 60 percent jump the previous year. Critics say that York’s problems actually began in previous years, and that the budget committee there used up the traditional surplus to avoid big increases earlier, then had nothing left to fall back on when costs continued to rise.

Cumberland is looking at a 12 percent budget increase but a 19 percent increase in overall property tax assessments, thanks primarily to declining revenue from the jail, which used to have space to board federal inmates and those from other counties.  That space is now used primarily to house its own prisoners.

Sagadahoc is considering a budget which would send county taxes up by 20 percent, though part of that increase stems from a proposal to shift the fiscal year, adding six months to the current budget.

While there is no formal tracking of county budgets, Bob Howe, long-time executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association, says that most county budgets are going up by much smaller increments; as often happens, it’s the places where budgets go up that attract attention. The squeaky wheel may not get the grease, but it does attract lots of press coverage.

The increases are doubly frustrating to municipal officials because they feel they pay the bills through the property tax, but have little say over county spending. Unlike state government or municipalities, counties have no major revenue source they can call their own. Even the real estate transfer tax, which might logically help fund county operations since it involves registries of deeds, is of minor assistance; counties get just 10 percent of the proceeds. Counties also receive one-fifth of the 10 percent surcharge on fines imposed by the judicial system for criminal and traffic offenses.

A 1996 state reform commission led by State Planning Office Director Evan Richert made a series of recommendations designed to make county government a more viable provider of regional governmental services. The key element of that package of recommendations were shifiting the cost of county jails from the property tax to the State, professionalizing the management of counties by effectively requiring county charters, county managers and the shift of key county positions (except for the commissioners) from elected to appointed positions, and clarifying and expanding the capacity of county government to provide a range of "user funded" services when asked to do so by the participating municipalities.

While conceding that counties are a burden on property taxes, Howe said that municipal officials aren’t out of the loop when in comes to creating budgets. As part of reforms adopted in the 1980s, most counties have budget committees composed largely of municipal officials, and many of them have significant clout when it comes to budget adoption. In only six counties do elected commissioners finalize budgets on their own. “It would be interesting to see whether the counties with strong [budget] committees have smaller increases,” Howe said, noting that York is one county with such a committee.

Cost driver

There isn’t much doubt, however, about what is driving most of the county budget increases. “It’s the jail. It’s the jail. It’s the jail,” said Bob Devlin, deputy county manager for Cumberland. Surplus cell space, which existed in most counties after a series of expansions and renovations in the ’80s and early ’90s, had practically disappeared by the late 1990s.

Cumberland’s new jail, which opened in 1994, was supposed to be sufficient for 20 years of growth; now, said Devlin, it could be full by 2006. Cumberland’s inmates numbers have grown from 150 to about 400 in just eight years, effectively crowding out the boarded inmates.

Other jails, including York’s, have operated substantially over capacity. And while ground has just been broken for a new jail there, capital costs of the project will continue to put pressure on the budget.

Nor is just the number of inmates the only issue. The cost of health care is “the leading cost factor for most, if not all counties,” said Howe. “There’s no insurance involved. Medicaid stops the day inmates walk through the door.” So while all public institutions, from towns through the university system, are scrambling to cover higher insurance premiums, counties may have the toughest problem.

“It’s certainly been significant at the state level,” said Denise Lord, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections. “But the counties are hit harder, because they’re dealing with much smaller numbers of inmates.” A 20 percent increase in health care costs is probably on the low side for most jails.

Those who arrive at correctional institutions also seem to be less healthy. In Cumberland County, mental illness seems to be particularly prevalent, said Bob Devlin. Lord said that chronic medical conditions – diabetes, liver disease, heart ailments, dental problems – are much more common among state inmates.

Maine’s low crime rate and its scant population growth, except along the coast, makes the influx of inmates a bit surprising. But the prisons and jails are still feeling the effects of public attitudes pushing the courts toward longer prison sentences, and jail time for lesser infractions.

“If you ask people on the street how they want us to deal with crime, they’ll say ‘lock ’em up,’ ” said Devlin. “Of course, they’re not always happy about paying the bill.”

Of particular concern to counties are probation violators, who are being arrested in increasing numbers. Police are devoting increased resources toward enforcing old warrants and following up on probation offenses. As a result, Howe said, anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of a county jail’s inmates may be there from enforcement of suspended sentences.

Since most probation violators serve short terms, most of them are in jail; inmates with sentences of nine months or less go to jail; those with longer sentences, to state prisons. And this brings up the old question of whether state payments to county jails are adequate – or might be fueling the current jail cost increases.

In 1985, the Legislature passed the Community Corrections Act, which formalized the financial relationship between the state and counties. It created a system for reimbursing counties depending on how many inmates were housed in each jail. Counties had supported the law; their main complaint was that, starting with the fiscal crisis of 1991-92, the state didn’t come up with the agreed-upon funding.

In 1997, new legislation drafted by the King administration converted the reimbursement system into a block grant. Counties were given the same funding as in the base year, plus a yearly inflation factor. Denise Lord said the new system cut down dramatically on paperwork, and gave counties money up-front. She also pointed out that the state took over the job of funding juvenile inmates once the new Charleston detention center opened.

But counties aren’t entirely happy with the new system. Bob Devin said the Legislature hasn’t always come through with the year inflation adjustment, and Bob Howe said the system represents costs as they were in 1997 – not what has happened in the subsequent five years. The law does have a provision for extra funding for counties that experience increases in jail costs of more than 10 percent. This year, York, Hancock and Somerset counties got an increase, which the Criminal Justice Committee funded through an increase in the fine surcharge. Kennebec and Penobscot have also applied for more funding, which may be available in 2003.

The Criminal Justice Committee was supposed to conduct a study last year of how the new system was working, but didn’t find the time; it’s currently organizing an ad hoc study committee to report to the next legislature.

There could be some good news for counties, however, in a just-completed report on inmate levels. After showing a sharp increase through the period 1996-2000, the number of inmates leveled off and declined slightly in 2001. While Lord said it’s too early to determine a trend, this could offer counties some relief in future budgets.

Shared services

One of the big cost factors in recent county budgets may now be producing savings – if not for the counties, then for municipalities. The state has nearly completed its system of 911 dispatch centers, with counties forming the centerpiece in most areas.

The transition has not always been smooth, and this has led to criticism of the state approach. “The logical thing would have been for the counties to take over,” said Crispin Connery, a Sagadahoc County commissioner who also served 18 years as a Woolwich selectman. Instead, the state indicated to some towns and cities that they could be certified as PSAPs (public safety answering points) under the state 911 umbrella – and then sometimes refused certification, he said.

Matters came to a head in Topsham, which insisted on maintaining its own dispatch center even though Sagadahoc went ahead with a county system. The town filed legislation that would have exempted it from paying for county dispatch, and another bill that would have required a referendum vote on budget increases of more than five percent. None of the bills passed, however, and the town is now rethinking the need for a local system.

Bath, the largest municipality in Sagadahoc, signed onto the county system right away, and, following the initial capital investment, is saving nearly $100,000 a year, according to City Manager John Bubier. Even though Bath pays 34 percent of the county budget, it still comes out well ahead.

Penobscot County is probably the model for a successful conversion, said Bob Devlin. Since county dispatch went on-line, all of the municipalities except Old Town and Bangor have gone over to the county system – and both are considering doing so. Old Town figures to save $170,000 and Bangor more than $200,000 annually. “Once the budget committees get ahold of this, reason begins to prevail,” said Crispin Connery.

Devlin hopes that it will in Cumberland, too. Despite being the largest and most densely populated county in Maine, Cumberland is also home to 13 of the state’s remaining 48 PSAPs. Municipal savings are certainly possible there too, he said.

Bob Howe said, “The state should have taken a much tougher line. You don’t need all those PSAPs even if you have more dispatch centers. Rhode Island has one PSAP. For that matter, Australia has one PSAP.”

Al Gervenack, director of the state’s Emergency Services Communications Bureau, admits that the state could have clearer, or more forceful in the initial discussions, but said that for many towns it was difficult to let go of local service. “We have gotten down from 61 to 48 PSAPs since service started,” he said.  He expects consolidation to continue once local officials see the savings other communities enjoy.

“I’ve always said that the local argument is misguided,” he said. “You don’t need to have the person on the phone be local – that’s the whole point of the 911 system,” which electronically pinpoints a caller’s location. “What needs to be local is the people responding – the firefighter, the ambulance driver. They need to know where to go.”

He does think communities need to follow up by completing their 911 addressing, and encouraging residents to post house numbers and put stickers on both sides of their rural mailboxes. “After that, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the system,” he said.

Turf issues

While John Bubier was a strong supporter of regional dispatch, he does question some priorities in the current Sagadahoc budget. Bath has the perhaps unenviable task of operating since 1988 under the state’s only spending cap contained in a city charter.

Foreseeing a tough year ahead, Bubier asked the city council to place a clarifying amendment on the ballot that would have removed the county assessment, sewer district fees and solid waste payments from the spending cap since none of them involve any municipal revenues. On a tie vote, however, the council declined to do so. Thus he faced the task of shoehorning a 16 percent county tax increase into the budget, which allows only a 2.5 percent inflation adjustment. Overall, the county faces a 22 percent increase, though without the bridge financing for the new fiscal year, the increase would be 13.5 percent.

Bubier questions the addition of new personnel for emergency management, corrections, and school-based policing. “I wonder whether, in this particular year, with all its challenges, we need to be adding more positions,” he said.

Connery said that the city manager may have a point about school-based officers; it would be better to get an agreement first with local police departments about who should have that responsibility, and those two positions may be removed from the budget.

But the emergency management office – one person – is intended to replace a contract with Lincoln County that expired in December; Lincoln had a four-person office, Connery said. “After 9/11, I don’t think we can assume we can do without our own emergency management. We may not be sure where we’re going, whether terrorism or perhaps public health is the biggest challenge, but we do know we’ll be going somewhere, probably at flank speed.”

As for the corrections officer, this would replace a three-year federal grant that’s just expired. “This is the person who pushes alternatives [to incarceration],” he said. “The idea is that if we don’t have to imprison people, we can save as much money as this position costs.”

In Cumberland, Bob Devlin seconds that motion. “You’ve heard it said that we can send someone to Orono on a full scholarship for less than it costs to jail someone. It’s true, and then some.”

Sagadahoc, the only county that doesn’t have its own jail – it now boards prisoners with Kennebec County under a contract that expires next year – is also considering building a jail with Lincoln which, like Sagadahoc, averages about 30 inmates – and has a jail capacity of only 12. “We would strongly encourage that,” said Bob Howe. “At this point, no county in Maine should be building a jail on its own.”

Reform again?

While the 1996 county reform effort came to nothing, memories of it remain fresh – and opinions diverse about why it failed to cohere. Some believe municipalities lost interest after a provision to require professional managers for all counties was deleted – and that the “old boy network” of county commissioner was simply not interested in change. The possibility of county government providing services traditionally offered by other regional entities (councils of govenrment, CAPs, etc.) was a sticking point for some.  Others think there was interest, but the shift in jail funding from the property tax to the State was pitted against the proposed $7,000 homestead exemption for available funding and that created a choice. “When it came down to which one to fund, the Legislature chose the one that gave the most direct relief,” said Devlin, though he agrees that management of counties still leaves much to be desired.

Could there be another effort with a new legislature and new administration next year? Crispin Connery thinks so: “As long as the issues of how we provide services remain, we owe it to the public to keep discussing them.”

He points out that the King administration effort was prompted in large part by discussion growing out of the 1994 election after “some really rough years” at the municipal levels. “When constituents come up to you and say they’re emptying their savings account to pay their property tax, it definitely makes you think.”

And Connery says it’s clear there’s still substantial overlap and duplication of services at the local, county and state levels. A new reform effort, he said, would focus first on jail costs. “We’re incarcerating people that a few years ago we would have diverted to other programs, and we’re just beginning to realize the costs of that approach,” he said. If municipal and county officials get together to demand change, legislators would listen, he said.

The other reform that’s most needed is rationalizing county offices, he said. Commissioners don’t truly have control of their budgets, he said, because so many department heads are elected in their own right – sheriff, treasurer, register of deeds, probate judge. “Towns have discovered that it doesn’t make sense to elect a treasurer. You have to have these people working together, under one system,” he said.

The steep increases in many county budgets have created public interest and awareness. Asked if county management is up to the standards of towns and cities, Connery said, “This county is managed as well as any municipality I’m familiar with. As a whole system, though, there’s room for a lot of improvement.”