Cumberland County officials plan to spend nearly $17 million in federal pandemic aid on a slew of projects and programs, including improvements to the jail, courthouse and downtown Portland arena.
Much of the spending targets problems that were exposed or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including inadequate medical facilities and staffing shortages at the Cumberland County Jail, a lack of generator capacity at the Cross Insurance Arena and the absence of local public health resources.
The work is being financed through the county’s $57.3 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. Jail upgrades top the project list, including $6 million to add a medical wing at the 30-year-old facility in Portland.
The current medical unit is a narrow hallway lined with four cells for sick inmates and three rooms of similar size that are used as a nurse’s office, a pharmacy and an examination room. The shower room for inmates is no longer functioning and is used for storage. A dentist’s chair nearly fills the closet-sized room where inmates receive dental care. Only one of the inmate cells in the medical unit is equipped with negative pressure ventilation that lets the jail isolate an infectious patient.
“This was state of the art when it was built in 1992,” Sheriff Kevin Joyce said during a recent tour of the medical unit. “But in 2022, it’s outdated and far below what we need.”
During the pandemic, the medical unit has proven inadequate to control the spread of the coronavirus, Joyce said.
As a result, groups of jail cells known as pods have been dedicated to isolating and quarantining inmates who are sick or may have been exposed to the virus. Last October, a major coronavirus outbreak forced about 300 inmates into lockdown for several weeks.
The proposed 6,000-square-foot medical wing hasn’t been designed yet, Joyce said, but it will include six negative pressure patient cells to increase the ability to isolate sick inmates. It also will include a waiting area, dedicated space for onsite corrections officers, and additional rooms for mental health counseling, dental care and a pharmacy that would allow centralized distribution of medications to inmates.
The county has earmarked $16.9 million of its $57.3 million ARPA allocation for county projects and programs. The rest will be distributed to municipalities, agencies and other entities that have sought competitive grants for a wide variety of proposals, including affordable housing, child care, substance use treatment and public health.
The county has already committed more than $6 million of its ARPA allocation to local efforts addressing homelessness, including $3.5 million to help the city of Portland build a $25 million homeless shelter and service center; $1.5 million to help Tedford Housing build a $7 million emergency shelter in Brunswick; and $106,000 to study the need for an emergency shelter, transitional housing and other services for homeless and at-risk residents in the Lakes Region.
The federal government released half of the county’s ARPA allocation last fall; a second $28.65 million is expected to be released by May.
PLANNED ARENA IMPROVEMENTS
Some of the county’s ARPA spending will offset expenses related to lost revenue during the pandemic, said County Manager Jim Gailey. Other projects and programs will address gaps in the local public health response to the pandemic and other problems that came to light or got worse during the last two years.
The county has allocated $700,000 to install back-up generator capacity at the Cross Insurance Arena, along with $85,000 to install an airlock system at the facility’s massive loading dock, Gailey said.
Both projects will address issues that county officials noticed when they were developing plans to use the arena as an emergency hospital, he said. The arena would have to bring in large power generators on tractor-trailers in order to serve as a medical facility, but it has no way to connect the generators to the arena’s electrical system. And every time the loading dock is opened for deliveries, air rushes into the building, making it highly inefficient to heat or keep cool.
“We had to figure out how we would bring generators in on trucks and safely connect them to the arena’s grid,” Gailey said.
Permanently installing suitable generators wasn’t an option, he said, given the arena’s constrained downtown footprint and a cost estimated at more than $2 million. The arena has a small emergency generator intended to keep the lights on during a power outage as people exit the building.
COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICE
Gailey’s priority ARPA-funded program is the County Public Health Office, which he established last fall with $650,000 to be spent over three years. After that, he plans to work the program into the regular county budget.
Gailey said he has wanted to establish a county public health office for years, after seeing gaps in the local public health system, including ones he observed in his previous job as South Portland’s city manager. He learned just how much the county needs a regional approach to public health when municipalities and agencies struggled to organize a local response to the pandemic.
“I’ve been trying to get that established for more than three years,” he said. “I wish I had. When the pandemic hit, my (human resources) staff turned into the county’s public health staff, dealing with guidelines coming out of Washington and answering questions from the public.”
The county public health manager is Liz Blackwell-Moore, a former public health consultant and substance abuse prevention specialist with The Opportunity Alliance. She’s working on a community health study to determine where the county should focus its resources.
“We want to find the gaps in community health programs and fill those gaps,” Gailey said.
JAIL STAFFING SHORTAGE
Back at the jail, the county plans to spend about $1 million in ARPA funding on ventilation system upgrades, including the installation of negative pressure equipment in one of the cell pods outside the medical unit; $329,000 for inmate medical treatment costs; and $175,000 to upgrade the fire alarm system, Gailey said.
The county also has allocated $2.5 million in ARPA funding to recruit, hire and retain staff – mostly corrections officers – in a highly competitive job market. Last fall, amid the coronavirus outbreak and a staff morale crisis, the county increased starting pay at the jail from $19.98 to $23.41 per hour, gave existing corrections officers 14 percent pay raises and added a recruiter to its human resources department, Gailey said.
Joyce has hired 12 corrections officers since October, leaving 58 of 120 positions still unfilled. He used to hire several people every couple of months, he said. He’s hoping they stick around.
The sheriff said he goes out of his way to woo viable candidates. He has application materials hand-delivered to their homes, hires officers before they complete training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and offers them rides to the academy’s entrance exam. And he believes that staff morale has improved.
“There’s no question the people at the jail have been working under extreme pressure,” said Jim Cloutier of Portland, one of five county commissioners. “We continue to have to take extraordinary measures to maintain a safe facility there.”
While the jail can hold about 600 inmates, Joyce said he keeps the jail population low, releasing inmates early and not taking in people charged with lesser offenses. Last week the jail had 245 inmates.
The sheriff noted that many inmates have a variety of physical and mental health problems and substance use disorders. He said improving medical facilities at the jail will help to make it a safer environment for both inmates and corrections officers.
“It’s a rewarding job,” he said, “but it’s a tough job.”
Other ARPA spending planned by the county includes: $2 million to upgrade the public safety regional communications center in Windham; $1.5 million to upgrade the ventilation system at the courthouse; $400,000 for a county staff child care program; $200,000 for county broadband, cyber security and computer upgrades; and $475,000 for ARPA administration costs.