County panel OKs $14.8M budget for ’10

Posted Nov. 18, 2009, at 11:38 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The Penobscot County budget committee Wednesday night approved a $14.8 million budget for 2010, which is about $400,000 more than last year’s budget of $14.41 million.

The budget committee is made up of representatives from municipalities throughout the county.

A public hearing on the budget is tentatively set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15.

The county’s budget coincides with the calendar year.

The final tax rate has not been set but is expected to be approximately $1.118 per $1,000 assessed valuation, according to County Administrator Bill Collins. The tax rate in 2009 was $1.071 per $1,000 assessed valuation.

Most of the county’s revenue comes from taxes paid by municipalities based on their assessed valuation determined by the state. The county also earns income from fees, primarily paid to the Registry of Deeds and Registry of Probate. The budget approved Wednesday put income from those two sources at $1.06 million.

Susan Bulay, register of deeds, told committee members that her office would “take a big hit” if MacImage of Maine LLC, a Cumberland-based firm, wins its lawsuit against Penobscot and 12 other counties over the fees charged for electronic copies of documents.

The company last week filed a complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court accusing the counties of violating the state’s Freedom of Access Law. The company sued Penobscot County and others after winning a similar lawsuit against Hancock County over that county’s practice of charging $1.50 per page for electronic copies of documents filed in its Registry of Deeds.

Penobscot County was served with the complaint Tuesday during the commissioners’ weekly meeting. The lawsuit is not expected to be resolved during 2010. Bulay estimated the county could lose between $150,000 and $200,000 annually if the lawsuit succeeds.

The county also will lose $140,000 in income next year due to the Superior and District Courts’ relocation next week to the new Penobscot Judicial Center on Exchange Street. The move also will increase expenses for the District Attorney’s Office by $33,000.

Commissioners had hoped to make up for the lost revenue and increased costs by renting the area occupied by the Superior Court to the U.S. District and U.S. Bankruptcy courts. The federal courts toured the historic county courthouse last month to see if it would be suitable space to use while the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building on Harlow Street undergoes a $53 million renovation.

The county received a letter Monday which said the federal courts would remain in their current location while the renovations take place.

In addition to the loss of revenue, Penobscot County also is facing a more than 20 percent increase in the cost of health insurance because of an unusually large number of claims due to heart attacks and cancer treatments, Collins told the group.

Employees also will receive a 3 percent salary increase, which is part of an agreement negotiated two years ago. Negotiations for a new contract already have begun, Collins said.

The budget committee agreed to reduce from $200,000 to $100,000 the Penobscot County sheriff’s budget for purchasing new vehicles.

Members of the budget committee expressed interest in the future of the historic courthouse. Bangor City Councilor Gerry Palmer asked if the building would be renamed to avoid confusion with the new courthouse, owned by the Judiciary.

“I think that we will rename it,” Commissioner Peter Baldacci of Bangor said. “One possibility is the Penobscot County Government Center.”

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