Somerset County panel tackles budget tonight

Posted June 30, 2010, at 12:08 a.m.

SKOWHEGAN, Maine— The Somerset County Budget Committee will convene tonight in an attempt to move the budget process forward and end the wait for towns seeking to mail property tax bills.

The county budget has been the topic of considerable debate in recent weeks as county commissioners and the budget committee have sought common ground in what has been a contentious process in recent years. But Dwight Dogherty of Pittsfield, who chairs the budget committee, said recent discussions and developments have smoothed over disagreements to the point that passage of the budget could be imminent.

“I’m a little more optimistic than I once was,” said Dogherty, who earlier this month told the Bangor Daily News that he didn’t expect his committee to adopt the county’s spending proposal. The budget committee must approve the commissioners’ proposals by a two-thirds vote. If the budget committee and commissioners don’t agree, the budget could bounce back and forth between the two boards indefinitely.

Complicating the situation, according to Dogherty, are two vacancies on the committee, the latest one caused when Larry Post of St. Albans was hired as the new Somerset County administrator. Post, who until now has been the Hartland town manager, must resign his seat on the budget committee in order to take the new job.

Acting County Administrator Earla Haggerty said Tuesday that caucuses are scheduled for July 7 in order to fill the two vacancies.

Another factor in the budget deliberations is Sheriff Barry Delong’s threat last week to close a unit of the Somerset County Jail unless an impasse with the State Board of Corrections can be resolved. The outcome of that situation could affect the county budget to the tune of $400,000, said Dogherty. The State Board of Correc-tions is scheduled to meet July 15. “That money could be released and we could take that in as a revenue on the budget,” said Dogherty.

The 2011 budget proposal of $5,145,725 represents an increase of about 8.1 percent over the current year.

Haggerty said final approval of the budget hinges on the budget committee.

“The budget process is entirely up to the budget committee at this point,” she said. “The ball is entirely in their court.”

St. Albans Town Manager Rhonda Stark said she and many other municipal officials in the county are watching the process closely because the county assessment must be known before property tax bills can be computed and mailed.

“People have been calling us now for a month, asking how much their taxes are going to be and when the bill is going to be mailed,” said Stark. “We can’t set our mill rate and send tax bills until the county sets its budget.”

Stark said delays by the county can also require towns to borrow money for operating expenses until property tax revenue starts coming in, as has been the case in St. Albans for the past two years.

Dogherty, who was formerly the Pittsfield town manager, said he knows the importance of timing for municipalities, but said the wait will be worth it if money can be saved in the county budget.

Tonight’s meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the Superior Court Room at 41 Court St. in Skowhegan.

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