By Rachel Ohm Morning Sentinel
FARMINGTON — The assistant administrator of the Franklin County Detention Center delivered a five-page letter to county commissioners Tuesday, pleading with them to hire more corrections officers to meet the growing needs of the jail.
“If we do not address our staffing issues with significant action, and soon, we can expect the resignation of a portion of our full-time staff due to our inability to provide the time off as agreed upon in the contract, and high stress levels,” Lt. John Donald said in reading the letter to commissioners. “I see this on their faces daily.”
The jail employs 15 full-time corrections officers and two part-timers, and it is training two other part-timers.
Its population, though small to begin with, has doubled over the last two decades to around 32 inmates at any time, according to Donald.
Short-staffing has added to the stress of employees, who already are seeing an increase in more serious offenders being housed at the jail.
And because of the inconsistent hours and low pay, the jail has struggled to retain part-time employees to fill gaps when officers are on vacation or sick.
Officers who have earned their corrections certification through the Maine Criminal Justice Academy typically start at around $14 per hour, while those who are uncertified start at $10 per hour for part-time work.
“The local McDonald’s and Aubuchon hardware stores pay the same, or a greater wage for work that does NOT incur risks of physical injury, exposure to infectious disease and possible legal liability, makes it very difficult to hire and retain part-time officers long enough to get them certified,” Donald said.
Sgt. Walter Fails, president of the National Correctional Employees Union Local 111, backed up Donald’s arguments in an interview, saying the jail doesn’t have enough part-time employees and the problem is hurting morale.
“We support anything that will give us more time off,” Fails said. “Right now, we’re so short of part-time help we have a hard time filling requests for time off. If a member puts in for time off and someone doesn’t take the shift, it ends up getting split between the shift prior to and after, and they end up with an 18-hour shift.”
The state’s opioid crisis is one reason for changes at the jail and greater demands on officers, Donald said.
“The stakes are high failure, (meaning) fatal overdoses in the worst case and trafficking within the facility in the best case,” Donald said. “The detection and elimination of opiates in the facility is but one aspect of a profession that has evolved generally out of sight and out of mind of the general public.”
Mental health problems also have become increasingly prevalent at the jail, with incidents involving no fewer than six inmates with such problems, including three “very serious” cases, taking place within one week in September.
In his letter, Donald talked about two of the serious cases, a disabled woman who had been arrested at the emergency room of Franklin Memorial Hospital and a young man who “was very large in stature as well as violent/suicidal.”
“These two individuals alone have kept my corrections officers engaged to the point where it was necessary for the major and myself to assist operations,” Donald said. “Dealing with said individuals is stressful and emotionally draining.”
In his letter, Donald proposed three staffing plans that would add, at most, six full-time certified officers or, at a minimum, three part-time officers who would work 24 hours per week.
The cost for a single part-time officer would be about $8,500 per year, Donald said. He said he hasn’t calculated the cost for six full-time officers.
“I haven’t crunched the numbers because frankly I know that’s not going to happen,” he said. “That’s where I think we should be, but I realize it’s going to be expensive, so we need to come up with something in the middle.”
Commissioners on Tuesday said they’ll consider the need and encouraged Donald to bring the request to the budget advisory committee in the spring.
County Clerk Julie Magoon said the county also can look at what they will be receiving in state funding this year to see if some of the money could go to hiring additional officers.
“Once we know what we’re getting for funding, I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have,” Magoon said. “I don’t think we can do anything at this point. We have to wait and see once we get the final round of funding from the state.”
Donald said the situation is urgent, but he thinks it is likely nothing will be resolved until the next budget cycle in the spring.
“It’s kind of something that’s come to a head. I felt I had to bring it to their attention, so going forward they know this is where we need to head. It’s my fault it didn’t get on the budget last budget cycle, but it will definitely be on the next budget if I have a say about it,” Donald said.
In other news Tuesday, commissioners awarded a $41,000 tax-increment financing grant to the Flagstaff Area Business Association for marketing efforts and discussed two other TIF applications.
The Madrid Historical Society, in collaboration with the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, is seeking to install signs and a turnout at the gateway to the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway and has requested $50,000 from the county.
The project would require the purchase of a property and the removal of two buildings on it, the former Madrid General Store and former Poacher’s Paradise dance hall. Commissioners are in discussions with the property owner about a potential sale.
They also are working to develop guidelines around the county’s revolving loan program. Sandra Lamontagne, owner of Tea Pond Lodge & Cabins in Eustis, is the first applicant to the program, and commissioners said Tuesday they do not want to award her a loan until they work out guidelines for the program.