Cumberland County officials plan to spend nearly $17 million in federal pandemic relief on a host of projects and programs, including improvements to the jail, courthouse and downtown arena from Portland.
Much of the spending targets issues that have been exposed or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including inadequate medical facilities and staffing shortages at Cumberland County Jail, a lack of generator capacity at Cross Insurance Arena and the lack of local public health resources.
The work is funded by the county’s $57.3 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. Prison improvements top the list of projects, including $6 million to add a medical wing to the 30-year-old facility in Portland.
The current medical unit is a narrow hallway lined with four cells for sick inmates and three similarly sized rooms that serve as a nurse’s office, pharmacy and examination room. The inmates’ shower room no longer works and is used as storage. A dentist’s chair nearly fills the closet-sized room where inmates receive dental treatment. Only one of the medical unit’s inmate cells is equipped with negative pressure ventilation which allows the prison to isolate an infectious patient.
“It 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 “But in 2022 it’s outdated and well below what we need.”
During the pandemic, the medical unit proved insufficient to control the spread of the coronavirus, Joyce said.
As a result, groups of prison 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 around 300 inmates into solitary confinement for several weeks.
The proposed 6,000-square-foot medical wing has yet to be designed, Joyce said, but it will include six negative-pressure patient cells to increase capacity to isolate sick inmates. It will also include a waiting room, dedicated space for on-site correctional officers, and additional rooms for mental health counselling, dental care, and a pharmacy that would allow centralized distribution of medication to inmates.
The county has earmarked $16.9 million of its $57.3 million ARPA allocation for county projects and programs. The remainder will be distributed to municipalities, agencies and other entities that have applied for competitive grants for a wide variety of proposals, including affordable housing, child care, addiction treatment and public health.
The county has already committed more than $6 million of its ARPA allocation to local homelessness efforts, including $3.5 million to help the City of Portland build a homeless shelter and service center. -25 million dollar shelter; $1.5 million to help Tedford Housing build a $7 million emergency shelter in Brunswick; and $106,000 to study the need for emergency shelter, transitional housing and other services for homeless and at-risk residents in the Lake District.
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 IMPROVEMENTS TO THE ARENA
Some of the county’s ARPA expenses will offset expenses related to lost revenue during the pandemic, County Executive Jim Gailey said. Other projects and programs will fill gaps in the local public health response to the pandemic and other issues that have come to light or worsened over the past two years.
The county allocated $700,000 to install backup generator capacity at the Cross Insurance Arena, as well as $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 is expected to bring in large electrical generators on tractor-trailers 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 open for deliveries, air rushes into the building, making it highly inefficient at heating or keeping cool.
“We needed to find a way to get generators on trucks and connect them safely to the arena grid,” Gailey said.
Installing proper generators permanently was not an option, he said, given the arena’s small downtown footprint and an estimated cost of more than $2 million. The arena has a small backup generator to keep the lights on during a power outage when people exit the building.
COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICE
Gailey’s ARPA-funded priority program is the county public health office, which he established last fall with $650,000 to spend over three years. After that, he plans to incorporate the program into the county’s regular budget.
Gailey said he’s wanted to create a county public health office for years, after seeing gaps in the local public health system, including those he saw in his former role as city manager of South Portland. He learned how much the county needed a regional approach to public health when municipalities and agencies struggled to organize a local response to the pandemic.
“I’ve been trying to establish this for over three years,” he said. “I wish I had. When the pandemic hit, my (human resources) staff became the county’s public health staff, handling directives from Washington and answering questions from the public.
The county’s public health officer is Liz Blackwell-Moore, a former public health consultant and substance abuse prevention specialist at The Opportunity Alliance. She is 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.
STAFF SHORTAGE IN PRISON
Back at the jail, the county plans to spend about $1 million in ARPA funding to upgrade the ventilation system, including installing negative pressure equipment in one of the cell pods at the prison. exterior of the medical unit; $329,000 for inmate medical treatment costs; and $175,000 to upgrade the fire alarm system, Gailey said.
The county also allocated $2.5 million in ARPA funding to recruit, hire and retain staff — primarily corrections officers — in a highly competitive job market. Last fall, amid the coronavirus outbreak and a crisis in staff morale, the county raised the starting salary at the jail from $19.98 to $23.41 an hour, a gave existing prison officers 14% pay raises and added a recruiter to its human resources department, Gailey said.
Joyce has hired 12 correctional officers since October, leaving 58 of 120 positions still vacant. He used to hire several people every two months, he said. He hopes they will stay.
The sheriff said he is doing everything possible to woo viable candidates. He has application materials hand-delivered to their homes, hires agents before they complete their training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and offers them to go for the academy’s entrance exam. And he believes that staff morale has improved.
“There’s no question the people at the jail worked under extreme pressure,” said Portland’s Jim Cloutier, one of the county’s five commissioners. “We continue to have to take extraordinary measures to maintain a safe facility there.”
While the jail can hold around 600 inmates, Joyce said he is keeping the prison population low, releasing inmates early and not taking in people charged with less serious offences. Last week, the prison had 245 inmates.
The sheriff noted that many inmates have a variety of physical and mental health issues and substance use disorders. He said improving the prison’s medical facilities would help make it a safer environment for inmates and prison officers.
“It’s rewarding work,” he said, “but it’s hard work.”
Other ARPA spending planned by the county includes: $2 million to upgrade the Regional Public Safety Communications Center in Windham; $1.5 million to upgrade the courthouse ventilation system; $400,000 for a county staff child care program; $200,000 for county broadband, cybersecurity and computer upgrades; and $475,000 for ARPA administration costs.