MACHIAS, Maine — “We have a $750,000 problem,” Perry Selectman David Turner said at the start of Tuesday’s Washington County Budget Committee deliberations.
The proposed county budget for 2011 started at $6.2 million, which is about $300,000 higher than the current budget of $5.9 million. When combined with a more than $400,000 loss of state and local revenue, however, the proposed budget would require the county either to cut services or raise taxes by about $750,000 next year.
Earlier this month at its first meeting, the budget panel eliminated all raises and curbed third-party requests.
At the group’s second meeting Tuesday, as the committee continued pouring through the revenues and expenditures in the proposed budget, some members questioned why the county commissioners didn’t see the shortfall coming.
“How do we fix this if the department heads didn’t even know it was going to happen?” Sheriff Donnie Smith asked. “The commissioners should have seen this coming. This is almost a million-dollar shortfall in a county with no debt.” Smith questioned why the commissioners this year approved buying two new properties and renovating them with such a drop in revenue and an increase in expenses on the horizon.
Because of the additional two buildings, and the resultant hiring of a half-time person, the buildings and grounds account rose $37,706 in the proposed 2011 budget.
When the sheriff was asked whether the buildings and grounds budget could be decreased by using inmate labor, he explained that only three inmates who already have been tried and sentenced are now in the jail. All three already are working in the laundry and kitchen. Inmates who are being held pretrial cannot be used, he said.
During Tuesday’s review, even department heads who cut their proposals were grilled. They were asked about the number of necessary employees and what effect cutting back hours would have on services.
But it was the proposed $68,887 increase for the Regional Communications Center that had some budget committee members pointing fingers at each other.
Chairman Lewis Pinkham, who also is the town manager of Milbridge, blamed Calais for the increase. Calais voters disbanded their city’s dispatch center in a cost-cutting measure, which triggered the hiring of two new full-time dispatchers on the county level to handle the new workload.
All county towns, including Calais, already were assessed by the county for dispatching services, before Calais eliminated its own service.
Statistics provided by the regional communications’ center indicated that the county dispatch handled 125 calls from Calais in 2008, 78 in 2009 and 674 so far this year.
“You are a large part of our problem,” Pinkham told Calais City Manager Diane Barnes.
Even after being told that all dispatching calls have dramatically risen, Turner said he was unconvinced.
“That is a major personnel increase. It is tough to swallow. Don’t get me wrong. When I call 911 I want someone to answer the phone.”
County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said it is continuously busy in the dispatching center. She said that, particularly in the evenings, it is “nonstop.” It will become even busier next year, when all cell phone calls — now answered by the Maine State Police — will be handled through the county communications center.
The committee will continue to review the budget over the next month.