Old News Archive

Letter to the Editor

January 19, 2009 - TRC

An Open Letter to the Maine Joint Standing Committee on Appropriations Committee and Financial Affairs and Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety; Senators Diamond and Gerzofsky, Representatives Cain and Haskell.

Grim times call for grim actions; it is clear that the decisions about tightening our collective and individual "belts" are more than grim. There are few state governments, few counties, few towns and few households across this country and in Maine that aren't being affected - today - by the current national recession. The Governor's curtailment order assumes less than half of the $140 million shortfall for 2009; the State is facing an even greater gap between revenues and programs as they now exist: $838 million.

One cost savings proposal in the Governor's curtailment order is the closing of one of the dormitories at the Charleston Correctional Facility (CCF), for a total anticipated savings of $450,000. This includes relocation of inmates, and the loss of at least 15 jobs at the CCF. This one budget cut makes up just about one-half of the $1 million total cut assigned to the Department of Corrections in the curtailment order.

As decisions are made about what to cut and what to leave, it is essential that the Maine Legislature look beyond the simple surface of programs and services not just the immediate and visible savings. For CCF, the surface impact of this recommendation is the savings of an estimated $450,000 to be realized by closing the dorm and the loss of 15 or more local jobs, or relocation of these employees to other facilities to fill current vacant positions elsewhere in the state.

Below the surface however is a far more dramatic impact; one that demands the attention and recognition of the Legislature: the significant contributions that CCF makes to Piscataquis and Penobscot Counties through the restitution program. Restitution is community service performed by the inmates and ranges from one-shot projects like clearing the roofs of some public buildings from snow to roadside brush cutting, and to facility improvements like the recent renovations to the new Dover-Foxcroft municipal building, and including more than 16,000 in bridge maintenance for the Department of Transportation.

A review of the local CCF restitution projects over 2008 reveals more than 43,000 hours of staff and inmate hours spent on community projects in 18 communities in Piscataquis and northern Penobscot communities, reflecting a monetary contribution to these towns of approximately $1,535,000. No small change here. These projects were all things needed to be done but where towns or organizations lacked the resources to make it happen. CCF stepped up, offering invaluable talent, time and labor to:
Build a handicapped ramp on the Milo Town Hall
Install siding on the Medway and Monson Town Office buildings
Build a maintenance building at the SeDoMoCha School Complex in Dover-Foxcroft
Build walls and doors at the Monson Historical Society
Paint the Town Hall and Police Department in Dexter
Construct and move the Stetson Food Pantry
Mow the Charleston cemeteries
Paint the Public Works Department in Brownville
Help in the construction of the Newport Cultural Center
Spring cleaning at Peaks Kenny State Park
Repair the skateboard park in Greenville
Paint the outbuilding and repair the dugouts at Piscataquis Valley High School in Guilford

More than 500 hours were spent helping to set up and take down at the Bangor Folk Festival - an event that brings more than $6 million to the northern Maine area.

Our community partnerships with CCF enabled the projects to be done efficiently and with quality, and enabled the inmates to make a contribution - a real contribution to our area and to the State. For these inmates, every day is a work day and a chance to "give back" while learning new skills and preparing for a successful life once they have completed their sentence. No custodial care here, folks. No hotel. These inmates earn their "keep" through forest and land management, community service and the opportunity to learn new skills.

The work performed by CCF didn't compete with local business people as there simply were no town or grant funds available for the projects. The $450,000 budget "savings" to be realized from this recommendation would result in at least a three-fold LOSS to its surrounding communities, not to mention at least 15 jobs in this county with the highest unemployment rate in the State.

As Mainers, we know that nothing is sacred during these lean times. We have been through this before and, no doubt, this won't be the last time. Everything that we fund with through the state budget process - which includes state and federal funds -needs careful examination with respect to need, efficiencies and effectiveness.

As Mainers, we also know that the effects of these budget reductions need to be shared - not one of us will be left untouched. Everyone needs to step up and contribute. It is important the budget cuts are made so that no one population group, or geographic area, or public service is disproportionately affected.

The Maine Legislature will need to make smart budget decisions that don't cut off our long-term vision and our ability to rebound quickly as the economy improves. I would offer the following suggestions to our Appropriations Committee and to the Legislature as a whole as you embark on this difficult and gut-wrenching obligation:

First, work to make cuts that position Maine better for the future, rather than just simply finding savings for today. Real, long-term savings should be our goal - not short-term or one-time actions. The economy and Maine's revenue situation will improve and when it does we want to be able to use new revenue for our most important priorities, rather than just using those revenues to do the same old things in the same old ways.

Second, take a targeted, performance-based approach to include looking closely at each agency, ask the hard questions about the priority of each expenditure and seek data about performance. Focus cuts, as much as possible, in areas that do not affect essential services.

Thirdly, propose key policy changes in each area so that we can control costs and make sure that our expenditures are truly needed for the public good.
And lastly and perhaps most importantly - be willing to be innovative; acknowledge and invest in areas that promise a return. A well-managed state doesn't simply choose between new and old programs, but between investments that work and recognizes those that have outlived their usefulness.

Piscataquis County has, over the past many years, contributed substantially to this State's budget savings.

Our residents have to go to Bangor for DHHS services as we have no local office in the county anymore. For many residents, this means not getting services that they are eligible for.

Piscataquis County has the highest unemployment rate in the State and recently, the area Career Center Services office was closed. Residents, if they can, travel to Bangor for job assistance.

The loss of even one job to our area is significant - 15 or more is substantial.
Recent changes within the Department of Corrections resulted in a loss of over $400,000 in revenue from the boarding of federal prisoners which Piscataquis County officials relied on the to reduce the tax commitment to communities.

Under the new consolidated jail system ordered by the state for cost savings, that federal boarding revenue now must be placed into a dedicated account and used only for the jail. This meant budget cuts for the county in order to avoid an increase in taxes.

The roads leading to and throughout our county are some of the worst in the State -making it difficult to market our area for business development because of the difficult in transporting goods and services in and out of the area.

It isn't that we aren't willing to share in the pain of this economic crisis. We are and we do. What we do need, however, is the acknowledgment by the Legislature of the impact of budget cuts to date upon our area resources and services. The ripples of this single recommendation to downsize CCF are substantial to our area and should be taken into account before any decisions are made. The minimum that we would request is to suspend cuts to the Charleston Correctional Facility for this supplemental budget and take up the Department of Corrections as a whole in the biennium budget discussions.
This will allow the Legislature as a whole and its relevant committees do the research and ask the questions that could eventually have a significant impact on the Department of Corrections and our area. I ask that you not rush to pass a supplemental budget that contains cuts that will have a lasting negative effect on this facility and the many towns in our region.

Thank you for your service and for your time in thoughtful governing,

Susan D. Mackey Andrews, Dover-Foxcroft

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.