County officials eye $4.25M budget for 2018

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DOVER-FOXCROFT — A proposed $4,247,114 Piscataquis County budget for 2018, along with a little less than $1,489,000 in the Unorganized Territory (UT) budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, was presented at a public hearing on Nov. 27 as part of the process by county officials for developing the pair of spending plans.

“The UT budget has a different fiscal year than the county budget does,” County Manager Tom Lizotte said at the start of his presentation with the two spending plans following respective fiscal year and calendar year schedules beginning July 1, 2018 and next Jan. 1.

“The overall budget for the UT is just under $1.5 million,” he said with the specific figure totaling $1,488,763. The UT budget represents a $42,000 decrease (2.74 percent) from the current fiscal year.

“The tax commitment to support that is $965,963,” Lizotte said. This figure is down by $48,269 (5 percent) from 2017-18.

“We have 13 townships that we have UT budgets for,” the county manager said. He said there are 95 townships in Piscataquis County, but the majority of these have no county infrastructure or year-round residents.

“The overall budget proposed is a little under 4 and a quarter million,” Lizotte said about the proposed county budget of nearly $4.25 million. The amount is up by $152,265 (3.68 percent) from 2017.

The estimated tax commitment for the 17 towns and two plantations in Piscataquis County for next year is $3,493,512, an increase of $97,382 (2.8 percent).

Lizotte said the county commissioners propose transferring $190,000 from surplus to reduce the county tax commitment in 2018, nearly double the $100,000 being used in the current year. “This is to keep the taxes as stable as possible,” he said. “We have been able to keep the tax commitment down to a workable increase.”

Two major increases — an investigator in the district attorney’s office and the county jail tax cap — pertain to the county budget, Lizotte said. “The big decision the budget advisory committee and the county commissioners had to both make is should the taxpayers fund that position?,” he said.

The district attorney’s office budget saw a large increase in 2017, going up by a little more than $95,000 to $342,305 as a part-time investigator position was increased to full-time with grant funding from a STOP Violence Against Women program. Grant funding for the investigator will be discontinued in 2018, representing a loss of $63,000 which would need to be supported by county funding.

“The budget advisory committee unanimously recommended at full-time through county funning,” Lizotte said. “They saw the value in that from local law enforcement agencies that this position really helps them.”

“Domestic violence was previously the only thing that the investigator could do, now it’s opened up so that was a big factor in deciding what we did,” budget advisory committee Chair Terry Knowles said.

The grant stipulations restricted the investigator to only domestic violence cases, and post-grant the position can help prepare any criminal cases for prosecution.

“The commissioners also unanimously voted to keep that position with county funding,” Lizotte said. He said a decision on the investigator “was the No.1 issue that we had” with representatives from domestic violence prevention organization Partners for Peace also speaking in support of keeping the position.

In addition to loss of the grant funding, the district attorney’s office budget for 2018 includes an increase of $17,707 (5 percent) to $360,012 due to a rise in personnel costs.

“The other major issue that contributed to the budget is the jail situation,” Lizotte said.

He said this year the Maine Legislature approved a bill to increase the tax cap on local funding of the county jail by 4 percent. Applying the 4 percent increase to the current tax cap on the Piscataquis County Jail will raise an additional $36,500 for a new total of $949,015.

Lizotte said the overall county jail budget is $1,528,488 and the facility has been operating with a deficit for the past two years due to a sharp decline in state Department of Corrections funding support for local jails.”There’s a structural gap of nearly $600,000,” he said, with about $150,000 still remaining after various jail revenue sources have been applied.

“There was little discussion on that, the commissioners said we need to raise every dollar we legally can raise to fund that jail,” the county manager said,

The county budget includes program grant funding to support 11 agencies across the region, increasing $3,000 in 2018 to a total of $171,200. Lizotte explained the increases are $2,500 more for the Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce and a $500 increase for Eastern Maine Development Corporation.

The county budget features a 2 percent general pay increase for all full-time employees, and a 2 percent increase has also been budgeted for employee health insurance.

Lizotte said the county’s state valuation has increased this year by $40 million to a little over $2.4 billion. The bulk of the increase is in the UT, which pays over a third of the county tax commitment. The highest municipal shares of the county spending plan are paid by Dover-Foxcroft (12.44 percent) and Greenville (11.7 percent).

The county and UT budgets are scheduled to be on the commissioners’ agenda for the Tuesday, Dec. 5 meeting. A formal vote to accept needs to be made by the end of the year, and the commissioners could opt to sign the financial documents during their Dec. 19 session if a decision is not made next week.

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