ROCKLAND, Maine — Faced with strong opposition from town officials, business owners and citizens, the Knox County Budget Committee and County Commissioners agreed Thursday night to cut the 2012 budget by more than $100,000.
The vote caps pay raises this year to 9 percent. The 2012 budget approved by both county boards on Dec. 1 included raises of up to 40 percent.
Commissioners agreed to hold a new public hearing and revotes after municipalities argued that the county failed to meet the public notice requirement for the original hearing.
The county was warned, however, by its human resources consultant Laurie Bouchard that capping the raises could lead to grievances or other challenges since the county sent each employee notices on how much they would receive and those raises have already been given as of Jan. 1.
“We’re in an extremely messy situation,” acknowledged budget committee member William Jones of Hope.
The budget committee voted 6-2 to cut an additional $108,710 from the previously approved county budget for 2012. That includes about $54,000 in reduced pay raises. The commissioners reluctantly followed suit on a 3-0 vote.
Commission Chairman Roger Moody defended the raises, noting that the county has known for years that the pay for employees was far less than comparable for workers. He said the timing may not be good because of the economy but that the public expects quality service and that can only be provided with quality compensation.
He said he would support the budget committee’s recommendation because he was a realist. If the commissioners had rejected the cap on pay raises, the budget committee simply needed another two-thirds vote to reaffirm its action and adopt the budget.
The public comment session of the meeting lasted for 80 minutes.
Ken Keiran, owner of Union Farm Equipment in Union, said his employees have gone two years without raises. He said many businesses and people are struggling.
“Many businesses are in a survival mode,” Keiran said.
Nate Pease of Union said common sense is needed and the county needs to realize that raises of up to 40 percent cannot be justified.
County Administrator Andrew Hart said the cap of 9 percent will affect 23 people who otherwise would be paid more than the cap.
St. George Select Board Chairman William Reinhardt said the town gave its employees no raises last year and 2 percent this year.
“We’re holding the line as best we can, you should do the same,” Reinhardt said.
Thomaston was represented by selectmen and its town attorney who argued that the raises were far too excessive compared to what towns are granting to workers.
Town Attorney Paul Gibbons said he believes the pay study commissioned by the county, at a cost of $22,230, created more inequities than it solved.
He said it appears that there was almost a gender bias with many female employees getting little or no raises.
Lee Houghton of Union said he too was upset by the raises. He noted he runs a dairy farm and must keep his expenses in line each year.
Bill Packard of Union, who served as chairman of the budget committee several years ago, also urged the boards to reconsider.
“I think there were good intentions that ran amok,” Packard said.
Lynn Talbot of Rockland, who is employed as a victim witness advocate for the county, noted she is on call around the clock. She said her pay has been well below that of other people in her job.
The cut reduced the 2012 county budget to $9.2 million, about 1.5 percent less than the 2011 budget.
On the budget committee vote of 6-2, all supported it except Randy Stearns of Camden and Lawrence Nash of Union who argued that a 9 percent cap was too great.
The two boards also eliminated $45,000 from the budget for the Maine Coast Economic Alliance. The budget committee members said they did not feel the organization presented an adequate proposal to receive taxpayer money.