SKOWHEGAN – The future of the Somerset County Jail, in danger of a funding shortfall if the state Board of Corrections continues to withhold federal money to pay for out-of-county inmates at the jail, is at the top of the list for candidates running in contested elections for a seat on the board of Somerset County Commissioners.
The Somerset County Superior Court ruled in February that it’s legal for the county to use revenue from boarding federal prisoners to pay off debt from the recent construction of the jail, but the state Board of Corrections has appealed the decision. Oral arguments in the state Supreme Court are scheduled for Nov. 6. Nearly every candidate in the upcoming election said that resolving issues with the Board of Corrections was their top priority, while other issues of importance included wind energy, information technology services and road maintenance. The job of the commissioners is to oversee county operations, including setting a county budget, jail operations and administration in the county’s unorganized territories.
The candidates for the District 3 seat on the board are four-time state Rep. Dean Cray and incumbent Robert E. Frost, both of Palmyra. The winner Tuesday will represent Cambridge, Detroit, Palmyra, Pittsfield, Ripley and St. Albans as county commissioner for a term of four years.
The candidates for District 4 are Jeffrey Clarke, of Canaan, and Newell Graf, of Skowhegan. The district includes Canaan and Skowhegan and is currently represented by Lynda Quinn, who is not seeking re-election.
Running uncontested to represent District 5 is incumbent Lloyd Trafton, of West Forks. That district includes Athens, Bingham, Cornville, Jackman, Solon and 13 other communities.
In the District 3 race, Frost, 64, said his goals if re-elected are to resolve issues with the state Board of Corrections and to expand information technology partnerships with other communities and counties.
“I’m running again because I want to finish what I started, and that’s to protect the county of Somerset and the taxpayer,” said Frost, who was born and raised in Connecticut, but has family ties to Maine and moved back to the area in the 1990s.
He also said his goal is to work with more communities, like the partnership to share information technology services with Franklin County, to save taxpayers money.
Cray, 56, recently finished his fourth term in the state Legislature and said he hopes to use his experience in state government to address issues facing the county.
“The most important issue facing the county is the lack of compensation the county is receiving from the state for boarding out-of-area inmates at the Somerset County Jail,” said Cray.
“I think there’s a lot of stuff the county can work on, and with my experience in the state government, hopefully I can bridge that gap a little bit,” he said.
In the Legislature, Cray served on two committees: Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and Energy, Utilities and Technology. He sees wind energy as an important issue in Somerset County and said that if elected, he would like to further explore the impact of the newly approved Bingham Wind Project on the county.
“I think it’s a really important issue,” said Cray. “I’m not a big proponent of wind power. I think it’s a cost that I just don’t see the benefit of.”
As a member of the board of selectmen in Skowhegan finishing his second term, Graf, 58, said he wants to continue working for taxpayers, not just in Skowhegan but in all of Somerset County.
His biggest concern is the disagreement between the state and county over federal money that the Somerset County Jail is owed for the number of inmates boarding at the facility, he said.
“Personally, I think we’ve done just fine without state involvement, and I don’t know why we can’t run the jail without the state,” he said. “If we didn’t have the Department of Corrections telling us what to do with that money, we wouldn’t have to send any of it to Augusta and could use it for debt, retirement or whatever else was needed.”
Other issues that are important to Graf include keeping the tax rate low – something he said he already helped to do in Skowhegan this year after a drop in taxable value at Sappi Fine Paper – and make repairs to roads in the unorganized territories that have fallen into bad shape.
Clarke, a former member of the Canaan Planning Board and a self-employed plumber, also said the funding of the Somerset County Jail was his biggest concern.
“The state has their eye set on taking over the jail and running it out of Augusta, and I just think our county jail should be run by the people in this county and the sheriff we elect,” said Clarke, 53. “I don’t think a bureaucrat in Augusta knows the needs of our community.”
He also listed individual property rights and wind energy as important issues, citing Maine’s Wind Energy Act as an infringement on property owners’ rights in Somerset County.
“The people of Somerset County have been shoved out of the process when they’re the ones who will probably be affected the most of all,” said Clarke, who said he is not a supporter of industrial wind power. As a commissioner, one thing that can be done is working with local state representatives on laws surrounding green energy to ensure that property owners rights’ are not violated, he said.
Incumbent Trafton, who is running unopposed to represent District 5, said the two most important issues to him in the county are domestic violence awareness and wind energy.
Commissioners are currently working on creating an economic development fund, or TIF fund, around the Bingham Wind Project, and Trafton said that if re-elected, he would like to continue working on the project, which would generate income from taxes paid by the wind farm that Somerset County could use for economic development.
Domestic violence is also an important issue for Trafton, who said he worked on putting in place a new program aimed at preventing domestic violence via electronic monitoring ankle-bracelets for past offenders.