Penobscot County Commission Chairman Peter Baldacci stands in the parking lot behind the county jail and old courthouse in November 2018, where the county at the time was proposing a new, 300-inmate jail. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN

A Penobscot County commissioner who last year agreed the county needed a new jail to replace its chronically overcrowded and aging facility now says he’s in favor of a remodel or expansion of the existing jail, not building a whole new facility.

“My feeling is that we need to be more prudent,” Peter Baldacci, chairman of the Penobscot County Commission, said Tuesday. “We can’t afford a $50 [million] to $60 million facility.”

Baldacci, a Bangor Democrat, said he was speaking for himself and not for the other two county commissioners. But his change in thinking represents the latest wrinkle in years of planning for a new county jail in which Baldacci has played an active role. The planning has gone through several iterations of a new jail structure, but has been largely paused since February, after several Bangor residents and business owners criticized the latest plan for an eight-story, 250-bed jail overlooking downtown Bangor.

The county jail’s inmate population has also remained lower since the coronavirus pandemic prompted Maine’s 15 county jails to release inmates to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading behind bars.

Baldacci made his comments Tuesday during a county commissioners’ meeting discussion about how jail space could be reconfigured to improve video conferencing with the Penobscot Judicial Center and other courthouses around the state.

Baldacci urged Sheriff Troy Morton and his staff to “be more creative” in how they use space at the jail.

Commissioners in June decided to delay asking voters to approve a $65 million to $70 million bond issue to build a new jail from the Nov. 3 general election until next year after initially putting the vote off until the primary election held July 14.

That bond would have funded the eight-story, 250-bed jail in a 116,879-square-foot building that would have been built where the former YMCA is located on Hammond Street in Bangor. Neighbors, city officials and at least one member of an advisory committee that recommended a new facility be built criticized the height and size of that proposed facility.

In March, a month after commissioners paused the jail planning process, the coronavirus outbreak shut down much of the state and caused Sheriff Troy Morton and other jail officials to reduce inmate populations by about 40 percent in a matter of weeks.

While the Penobscot County Jail for years has housed well more than the 157 inmates it’s licensed to hold, in addition to dozens of inmates the county regularly boarded at other Maine jails, the population recently has hovered just slightly over 157 with fewer inmates boarded out, Baldacci said.

That smaller population is due to several factors, he said, including an increase in the number of defendants on bail under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services, the willingness of police departments to issue summonses for offenses rather than arrest defendants and bring them to the jail to await trial, and the district attorney’s cooperation in efforts to keep non-violent offenders out of the facility.

Those efforts have been successful and are expected to continue after the pandemic ends, Baldacci said.

Baldacci said that he did not expect commissioners to decide on the next steps concerning the jail until the fall when the process of crafting the 2021 budget begins.

Commissioner Andre Cushing, a Republican from Newport, said that a new jail still is under consideration.

“While we made a decision to put both a bond vote and further discussion on hold, Chair Baldacci’s comments at the meeting today should not be interpreted that we as a board of commissioners are not going to further explore a new correctional facility,” he said Tuesday.

The third commissioner, Laura Sanborn, a Democrat from Alton, did not respond to a request for comment. Sanborn has consistently supported construction of a new jail.