Penobscot County has hired a lobbyist to work behind the scenes at the State House to push for state funding of a new jail and more deputies — services usually primarily funded by county governments — highlighting the challenges that the county views as most dire.
The Penobscot County commissioners hired Patriot Consulting, owned and operated by Zach Lingley, to solely represent the county in Augusta, separating Penobscot County’s legislative efforts from the rest of the counties in Maine.
The six-month contract, which went into effect last month, pays Lingley $48,000 to push for state funding of new deputy positions to patrol rural parts of the county. He is also seeking state help funding a new jail, according to Andre Cushing, chair of the county commissioners.
Penobscot County Administrator Scott Adkins said he supports the initiatives but called the agreement an “expensive proposition” that perhaps could have waited as the state budget process is already well underway. His job, he said, was to carry out what the commissioners voted on.
“It’s not cheap. You know, the only downside to it, aside from the cost, is that the [state] budget process is kind of too deep into its process to make any sort of huge impact,” Adkins said. “So the timing wasn’t great; we could have waited a little bit.”
Counties have traditionally lobbied for funding and legislation through the Maine County Commissioners Association, though other counties like Cumberland and Knox have hired their own lobbying firms in the past, according to state lobbying records.
Lingley has worked closely with Maine Republicans for years in multiple roles, including a stint as the field director for the state Republican Party when it held the majority in the Senate in 2012. He has also worked for several Republican candidates for office, including Mary Mayhew during her failed bid for governor in 2018.
Most recently Lingley has served as a lobbyist in Augusta for a subsidiary of one of the largest cigarette and tobacco companies in the world, called Altria Client Services Inc. and Affiliates.
This isn’t the first time the county has hired Lingley, Cushing said. The county hired him toward the end of the legislative session last year to lobby for funding for rural patrol positions, but it was too late into the legislative session to make progress, Cushing said.
For more than a year now, Penobscot County officials have worked to fill in patrol gaps throughout the county as the Maine State Police has pulled out of rural patrol commitments across the state.
The state police covered three of the six rural patrol zones throughout Penobscot County until last May, when a new agreement went into effect. Since then, the state police have covered two of the zones as well as the interstate. The current coverage-sharing agreement is set to expire at the end of April.
Lingley’s primary focus at the Maine Legislature is rural patrol because state police officials have not given any indication that there will be an extension, Cushing said.
“Which means as of May 1, we will be facing the question again of whether [the state police] will continue to support rural cost sharing in the two zones they currently cover or if they would retreat from that position and leave us needing additional support,” he said.
State police Lt. Michael Johnston, the commanding officer of the northern field troop, said there has been communication, but there is need for more discussion between the state and county.
“If the call sharing agreement in Penobscot County was to expire at the end of April without a new agreement in place, the existing one would hold while communication would continue,” he said.”
As a result of Lingley’s efforts, two bills have been introduced by members of Penobscot County’s legislative delegation after Lingley approached them.
The bills, sponsored by Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, and the other from Rep. Joe Perry, D-Bangor, would have the Legislature fund new patrol positions for Penobscot County.
Both bills have been met with fierce resistance from the state police, which claimed in testimony given to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that state funding of sheriff’s deputies is wrong.
“The state police has never gone to the county commissioners and asked for funding from the counties to support our operations because we believe that would be highly inappropriate,” Lt. Col. Brian Scott of the state police said in written testimony. “County funding is for county operations!”
Penobscot County took its deputy funding issue to the Legislature because of how costly it will be to hire new deputies, Cushing said.
It takes three deputies to staff each of the six patrol zones in Penobscot County to ensure around-the-clock coverage, Cushing said. Each deputy costs the county about $136,000, which includes the deputy’s wages, benefits and equipment, he said.
The county could raise taxes to fund new deputies, but at least one official said that’s not a viable option.
During a recent criminal justice committee meeting, Sen. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, said legislative leadership met to discuss the rural patrol issue and determined Penobscot County can’t pay for the new deputies.
“There is no way that the county is going to be able to raise the property tax to bring in more people,” she said.
The other component of Lingley’s work is to help find a way for the county to fund a new jail, Cushing said.
For years now, the county commissioners have considered multiple plans to expand or build a new jail because the facility is prone to overcrowding. But the commissioners have been sharply criticized by Bangor officials and residents for considering an expansion or new construction.
In November 2021, the commissioners approved an addition to the existing jail. That addition would bring with it 100 more beds, a new and safer intake area, an expanded medical unit and a new space to allow for more programming.
On paper, the agreement between the county and Lingley calls for him to lobby for funding that would go toward a “regional mental health and opioid treatment facility.” But that facility is really a new jail, Cushing said.
“We obviously are seeking a new correctional facility in Penobscot County,” he said. “Tragically, we’re housing one of the larger populations of mental health and substance abuse inmates, and we have no medical beds.”
The new facility would be outfitted with enough capacity to specifically help people who have been arrested that need treatment for addiction or mental health conditions without having to leave the custody of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, Cushing said.