Town officials concerned about use of surplus funds

Posted Nov. 17, 2008, at 11:03 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:58 a.m.

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — A plan by the Piscataquis County commissioners to roll surplus into the county budget to offset assessments to municipalities came under attack Monday during the annual county budget meeting.

In the past, the county has used some of the approximately $400,000 in revenue from the boarding of federal prisoners to reduce the overall county assessment. An additional $70,000 a year for the boarding of prisoners from other counties and about $70,000 from Community Corrections also was used to help offset the operational costs of the jail. Under the new jail consolidation effort, however, those boarding fees now must be placed into a dedicated account for capital jail improvements.

To replace that loss, the commissioners plan to use $300,000 of the $600,000 anticipated surplus to reduce the tax commitment. After cuts, the proposed budget reflects an increase in spending of 1 percent, but because of the revenue loss, assessments will increase by 6.5 percent.

“You’re on the same slippery slope we’ve been in as a community,” Milo Selectman Jerry Brown said Monday, regarding the reliance on surplus. He cautioned county officials that at some point the surplus would be exhausted. County officials, he said, should have started two years ago cutting and getting ready for the revenue loss.

Commissioner Tom Lizotte said the commissioners had not been aware early on that the jail funds would be put in a dedicated account but they were “acutely aware” of the surplus situation.

Under the consolidation plan, the county’s cost for the jail is capped at $878,940. That is the amount the county must pay the state every year whether the jail is open or not, County Manager Mike Henderson said. The proposed jail budget for next year is $1,518,256, and the difference is supposed to be funded by the state under the new plan. With the state budget crisis, however, it is anticipated that some of the dedicated jail funds will have to be used to offset the difference, he said.

Greenville town officials have asked the county’s delegation to submit a bill in the next Legislature to protect the revenues generated by county jails, Greenville Town Manager John Simko said Monday. The suggestion is that each county jail develop a capital budget for a 10- to 20-year period and then set aside an amount each year to cover those projects. Anything left over could be used to offset county expenses, he suggested.

Greenville Selectman Eugene Murray, who also expressed his concern about the dwindling surplus account, said Greenville is “getting chewed alive.” Because of the high state valuation, Greenville pays about 14 percent of the county budget. He said pressure needs to be placed on the state. “You’ve got to start pushing back,” Murray said.

Lizotte agreed. “I think it’s going to take a united front.”

“We are out here in left field as far as Augusta is concerned and we’ll always be out in left field,” Sheriff John Goggin said Monday. “If we don’t work together nothing’s going to get done [for the rural counties].”

One idea for property tax relief was floated Monday by Commissioner Eric Ward who suggested a value-added tax on wood. The merchant mariner said that in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, no taxes were used to build the beautiful infrastructure; rather, it was funded through a little oil revenue. Since a lot of wood is going out of the county, everyone could pay a little, including homebuilders and it would not affect the local sawmills, he said.

“Pennies on 1,000 feet would level the playing field with southern Maine,” he said. “That would be really big for the county.”

The commissioners said they would review the budget again before adopting a spending plan by Dec. 31.

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