Waldo County taxes may increase 8 percent

Posted Oct. 31, 2011, at 5:34 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — After three years of having relatively stable budgets for Waldo County government, voters may be looking at a significant jump for the next fiscal year.

After a budget meeting Saturday, the draft county budget for 2012 shows a 7.8 percent increase, with employee benefits accounting for a significant portion of the change.

“The health thing is probably untouchable. It is what it is what it is,” Bill Sneed, chairman of the Waldo County Budget Committee, said Monday. “The other things probably are touchable. We’ll spend the next three weeks mulling it over ourselves.”

The 2011 fiscal year budget added up to a total of $7.45 million. The 2012 budget, which includes departments such as the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, the regional communications center and the District Attorney’s Office, so far adds up to $8.03 million.

That figure includes a fixed $2.83 million budget for the Waldo County Jail and Reentry Center, a number that is capped by the Maine State Legislature.

“It is a larger budget,” Amy Fowler, a Waldo County commissioner, said Monday. “But the last three years, we’ve almost cut ourselves down. We’ve cut so much. You can only cut so much without cutting a finger off. It looks a little more dramatic, because of that.”

Last year, the mill rate for the county tax was $1.41 per $1,000 in property valuation. That means that owners of a home valued at $100,000 would pay $141 in county taxes.

One reason for the increase is that for several years the county has been underfunding its reserve accounts, Fowler said. The draft budget includes a request for $176,000 for reserves, much of which would be earmarked for technology.

“We’re trying to make this up. Unfortunately, it looks like we’re trying to make up a lot in a year,” she said.

Another increase is in the budget line for employee benefits, from $1.09 million to $1.23 million, which is a jump of almost 13 percent.

Sneed said the county has had flat health insurance costs for three years in a row, which he described as something akin to a miracle and also something which was bound to change.

“Health care costs don’t go down,” Sneed said, adding that county officials were able to secure a good rate in the late 2000s.

Other departments with proposed increases are:

• The Waldo County Regional Communications Center, which shows a draft budget of $800,000. That’s about 3.4 percent higher than it was in the last fiscal year.

• The Waldo County commissioners, with a 14 percent increase from $459,055 to $524,639.

• The Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, which has a draft budget of $1.32 million. That’s about 10 percent more than the $1.02 million budget for the last fiscal year.

• The Waldo County Registry of Deeds, with a 13.5 percent increase from $195,387 in the last fiscal year to $221,867 for the next.

Fowler said that the county is “pretty lucky,” in general.

“We have cream-of-the-crop employees,” she said. “As much as we all want to gripe and groan, I think it’s good. For years, it’s either been zero increase or such a minimal increase.”

Last year the county even “gave back” $300,000 to taxpayers, she said, through reducing what municipalities had to pay.

Sneed said that while he wouldn’t describe the county budget as bare bones, compared with several years of annual increases that averaged from 8 to 10 percent during the late 1990s it’s “close to reasonable.”

On the other hand, he said that other levels of government took drastic measures to economize during the recession. Those measures have included furlough days, no raises and positions going unfilled.

“None of those things have happened in Waldo County,” he said. “No furlough days, everybody gets their raises, everybody gets their [cost of living adjustment]. I don’t want to say they’re living high on the hog, but they’re not doing too badly for themselves.”

Waldo County residents will have the opportunity to comment on the draft budget at a public hearing that begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Belfast District Court.

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