Will taxpayers be held hostage to jail costs?



As the county seat, Ellsworth has had a succession of jails over the years. The old county jail on State Street, now the home of Ellsworth Historical Society, was preceded by a jail in a house on Pleasant Street.

The current county jail, attached to the back of the courthouse, has been remodeled at least once in its 40 years of service. The recent jail inspection by the County Commissioners, reported on in last week’s American, turned up maintenance issues that could be expensive. This is not good news at a time when so many aspects of local and county government already are challenged by cost increases. The taxpayer money pot is only so large.

Incarceration has been a problem for decades, if not centuries. The state stipulates operating procedures for county jails but rarely funds them. Even the state-managed prisons frequently fail to meet established health and safety guidelines. Much of the brouhaha over the East Machias prison closing was the amount of money being spent on an outdated facility housing a small number of low-risk prisoners.

Twenty-five years ago, former Ellsworth City Manager Tim King proposed a study to create a combined City Hall/county offices building that would have a new jail. The then City Council backed King’s suggestion unanimously, recognizing that growth and age are not compatible when buildings are not well-suited or well-sited for expansion.

Today, Ellsworth and the county are in virtually the same spot. Ellsworth City Hall has been remodeled and renovated at considerable expense, but it lacks the space for both the Fire Department and a growing Police Department. The county’s space for the Sheriff’s Office and the jail is at capacity.

As the largest city in Maine (by land mass) surely Ellsworth and the County Commissioners could settle on a combined new building sited with ample land for future growth. But how would it be paid for? Should the state take a more aggressive role in funding prisoner housing, creating regional facilities that provide training and rehabilitation as much as housing? Where would that money come from?

We all know the answer to that question. But shouldn’t planning be more long-term so that cost increases are less formidable? Maybe Tim King’s original plan, revived and dusted off, could be implemented before a crisis forces more new pain onto taxpayers.