DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Distinct personalities are engaged in a war of words in Piscataquis County.
Sheriff John Goggin claims county commissioners and the county budget committee deliberately cut his budget last fall to set him up for failure. While he has spent about 53 percent of his total budget, his $15,000 part-time budget and his $25,000 overtime account for 2011 are nearly exhausted.
Goggin is at odds with Commissioners Tom Lizotte of Dover-Foxcroft, Fred Trask of Milo and Eric Ward of the Unorganized Territory as well as members of the the budget advisory committee, who last fall shaved his budget, among other accounts, to reduce county taxes. Aware that the two accounts are dangerously low, the commissioners have warned Goggin twice that no overdrafts will be approved if he depletes his funds.
“They set us up for a kill,” Goggin said this week. The commissioners have no supervision over his activities, so they are trying to control him through the purse strings, he said.
Goggin, who became sheriff in 1991after working for the department for 19 years, said he never had any budget problems under previous administrations.
Of the alleged set-up, county commissioners’ Chairman Lizotte said: “I don’t think the sheriff needs the assistance of the county commissioners to fail. He is quite capable of doing that himself.”
Goggin needs to stop fixating on the past and start dealing with the reality of the present, Lizotte added.
The budget was approved last December, the county is seven months into the year and Goggin still refuses to acknowledge his current budget, Lizotte said.
“His handling of the 2011 patrol budget, especially the overtime accounts and the part-time accounts, is just an example of incompetent management,” Lizotte said.
Goggin said his management has never been an issue because he has been re-elected to five four-year terms by voters.
“I consider it a compliment being called incompetent by the most disliked man in Piscataquis County,” he said.
The sheriff believes the root of his problems with the commissioners stems back to 2009, the year a farmstead he owned in Sangerville burned flat, followed five days later by the death of his father-in-law in Florida. Not once, he said, did the commissioners recognize those hardships and offer him an ounce of sympathy, so he confronted them about it. The relationship went downhill from there, he said.
Lizotte, however, believes the division started in the fall of 2008, when the U.S. economy went sour. The sheriff and his administrators came to the commissioners seeking an 11 percent pay increase, and two weeks after that the recession struck, Lizotte said. Goggin failed to acknowledge the consequences for local government and has resented it ever since, he said.
Goggin said that was the year union employees received pay increases of 8 percent to 9 percent. The supervisors had asked for 11 percent to stay ahead of their subordinates, he said. Without an increase, the subordinates would have received higher compensation than their supervisors, he noted.
After presenting his budget last fall, Goggin was asked to pare it by $97,000.
“The whole wind just went right out of me,” Goggin recalled. At that point, he said the commissioners already had eliminated a full-time patrol position that had been vacated earlier in the year, had reduced his regular part-time account to $15,000, and later tried to reduce his salary by about $10,000. The reduction did not go through.
Goggin said he and his supervisors rebuilt the budget for a savings of about $109,000, which restored four department priorities: the full-time position the commissioners had eliminated, cruiser funding, funds for part-time help, and two Tasers. That budget was rejected by the commissioners, he noted.
“It wasn’t a budget they wanted to approve because it wasn’t going to hurt us in mid-year like the one they adopted,” the sheriff said.
Lizotte called the sheriff’s revised budget Goggin’s “wonder budget.” He said the budget draft Goggin presented last September showed a savings of $109,723 and purported to preserve the department’s priorities.
“The budget sounded too good to be true and, on examination, it proved too good to be true,” Lizotte said. There had been no funds budgeted for employee benefits for the patrol officers. In 2010, $189,189 had been budgeted. The alleged savings actually resulted in a budget increase of about $80,000 when employee benefits were included, according to Lizotte.
Regardless, Goggin said his department did as told and cut $109,723. In the end, Goggin lost the 43-hour patrol position and its benefits, and received limited funds for overtime, part-time help and cruiser rotation. He said he now has about $3,000 remaining for service and repairs in the latter account.
“It’s going to take one major incident and we’re going to be out of those funds,” Goggin said.
Lizotte said Goggin has known what his budget was since December.
“His patrol operation has run on autopilot for the first half of this fiscal year,” he said. “A competent manager would have begun in January of this year to adjust operations to reflect his reduced funding levels. Goggin did nothing. Even after receiving a warning in April that his spending was out of control, Goggin did nothing. And in June, after reporting that his budget was in an alleged crisis, Goggin still did nothing.”
While he acknowledged that his part-time and overtime accounts were low, Goggin said if the accounts had been budgeted as presented, he would have had no problem. All he needs, he said, is about $15,000 more to finish the year in those two accounts.
The commissioners advised Goggin that he couldn’t spend money not appropriated, yet he said the commissioners do it repeatedly. The commissioners budgeted no funds for the roof replacement on the sheriff’s office, yet the project was combined with the budgeted jail roof project, he said. The sheriff’s office is attached to the jail. “Where did that money come from?” he asked.
In addition, a new boiler was budgeted for the jail, yet the Sheriff’s Department was included in the project, he noted. “It happens all the time,” he said of the use of funds not budgeted.
“What if a bridge imploded but no funds were budgeted?” Goggin asked. He said the commissioners would find the money in contingency, the general fund, or some other account to fix that bridge. “But now, just because Sheriff Goggin is in the boat he’s in, that they put him in, they’re saying, ‘If it wasn’t in the budget, we can’t do that anymore.’”
The county’s contingency account is for emergencies, Lizotte said. “The sheriff’s budget problems are not an emergency,” he said.
Goggin said he believes the budget controversy has been an opportunity for the commissioners to bring back call-sharing with the Maine State Police — a program, he claims, that didn’t work in past years and wasn’t beneficial to county residents. Goggin said he was so soured by the arrangement that he would never entertain it again unless the state police paid the county to perform the service. State police and his department in effect already have call-sharing, he said, since both numbers are in the phone book and residents can call whichever department they want.
To address the budget shortfall, Goggin said he has scaled back the overtime and part-time help. Protection will be provided but on a priority basis, he said. Calls will be answered based on their severity, and the help typically provided for community celebrations likely will be eliminated.