MACHIAS, Maine — Washington County’s budget committee on Monday debated at length a request by Sheriff Donnie Smith for funding for legal fees and other professional services when the panel took its first detailed look at the proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
Smith has asked for $25,000 for the line item. He has spent nearly $6,000 so far this fiscal year although no funds were budgeted. No funds were budgeted or spent for the budget item in 2012.
The issue debated at the budget committee’s first session was whether Smith should have control over the monies or whether they should be handled — and approved — through the county administration, which has oversight of spending for legal fees by the county’s various departments.
Calais City Manager Diane Barnes suggested the funds for professional services for the sheriff’s office ought to be controlled by the county administration. “It can get way ahead of you,” she said, referring to spending for legal fees.
Smith disagreed. His is a separate elected office, not a county department, he argued in asking for the monies to be included in his budget. Funds for legal fees had been included for his office in the past, he said, but were removed in recent years.
Eastsport Town Manager Larry Post sided with Barnes. Somerset County, where Post formerly was the county manager, only allocated about $4,000 annually in legal fees for its sheriff, said Post, and those funds were used primarily for emergency legal consultations, such as in a shooting case. Additional spending for legal fees by the sheriff had to be approved by the county administration, he said.
“That’s where I would be headed,” said Post, “in this direction.”
“I agree,” said Barnes.
Smith also argued the reason he needs his own budget line item for legal fees is because the county’s legal counsel told him he could not provide his office with legal advice.
Commissioner Vinton Cassidy suggested the committee consider a “much smaller amount” for emergency legal advice, as Post pointed out in the example of Somerset.
Budget committee chairman Lewis Pinkham, town manager of Millbridge, asked the county staff to obtain clarification as to why the county’s attorney cannot represent the sheriff’s office. “Maybe the county needs to find a new attorney,” said Pinkham.
State Sen. David Burns asked county administrator Betsy Fitzgerald to ascertain how other Maine counties handle legal representation for their sheriffs.
Smith still has the ability to retain his own attorney, pointed out Barnes, but she argued that approval of funding for legal counsel should go through the county administration.
The budget committee reviewed the proposed budget with Fitzgerald, county treasurer Jill Holmes and deputy treasurer Judy Alexander, as well as various department heads. The panel will meet again Sept. 30 and set a third session for Oct. 22.
The proposed county budget, presented to the Washington County commissioners earlier this month, would increase spending more than 2 percent — by $194,400 — to $5,986,831. An additional $121,885 would have to be raised by taxes compared to the current budget.
Barnes also pointed out that the county continues to outsource its payroll operations even though it acquired new software in recent years that gives the county staff the capability to perform the function.
“We’re still talking” about doing the payroll in-house, said Fitzgerald. “It’s not off the table, no.”
Holmes said there was a “comfort” issue with the new software.
Pinkham said he occasionally does payroll for the town of Milbridge with the same software. “If I can do it, anybody can do it,” he said.
The county is in the second year of using the new software, Fitzgerald said later.
Outsourcing payroll operations costs the county about $10,000 a year, according to Alexander.
Barnes also asked why the proposed budget included a $55,366 increase in the county match for FICA for county employees. Fitzgerald, Holmes and Alexander did not have that information at their fingertips.
“The answer is we don’t know,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ll check.”