Washington County wrestles with budget gap

Posted Nov. 08, 2010, at 10:53 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — When members of the Washington County Budget Committee first began meeting last August, they knew a daunting task was ahead of them.

The proposed county budget for 2011 started at $6.2 million, which was about $300,000 higher than the current budget of $5.9 million. But when combined with a more than $400,000 loss of state and local revenue, the proposed budget would have required the county either to cut services or raise taxes by about $750,000 next year.

Two months and four meetings later, there have been major cuts — two positions likely have been eliminated, all raises are gone, and third-party requests have been strictly curbed. Though the budget is not completed, the county still may need to raise a half-million dollars more in taxes this year.

A health insurance foul-up and a lack of surplus to lower taxation have contributed to the problem.

County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald explained Monday that, in an attempt to save money, the county opted last year for a self-funded insurance plan. That didn’t go well, she said.

In addition to a higher number of medical costs than usual, the county’s union employees claimed the new insurance violated the union contract.

Fitzgerald, who was hired in February and inherited last year’s budget, said the union won its appeal before the state Labor Relations Board regarding health insurance.

Fitzgerald said the county now is enrolled with the Maine Municipal Association’s risk management program, but other options are being investigated.

“So our insurance costs for next year are still up in the air,” Fitzgerald said, but they should go down.

To pay off the costs incurred from the self-pay plan, Fitzgerald said almost a quarter of a million dollars was taken from surplus. “That left us without a nice balance like we had last year,” she said.

In 2009, $500,000 was taken — as per state statute — from surplus to lower taxation.

In addition, despite deep cuts, the budget for the Regional Communications Center had to be increased by $100,000 because the RCC took on the city of Calais this year.

Statistics provided by the RCC indicated that county dispatch handled 125 calls from Calais in 2008, 78 in 2009 and 674 by August of this year.

Still, Fitzgerald said, the budget is “bare-bones.”

“It is less than it was five years ago,” she said. “We are just trying to maintain what we have.”

To put the budget in perspective, Fitzgerald used her own Machiasport tax bill as an example. The county section of her taxes amounted to 7.6 percent of the total, or $155.

“For that $155, I get law enforcement, a jail, deeds and property issues, probate court, emergency management, the Regional Communications Center and the district attorney,” she said. “Never mind that the county also maintains a historic 1855 building [the Washington County Courthouse].”

Fitzgerald said the budget committee would meet at least one more time before she expects to hand off the proposal to the county commissioners on Dec. 2.

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