Piscataquis County nonprofits at risk of having funding slashed

Piscataquis County’s commissioners face big decisions about which area groups to fund with next year’s budget projected to be up nearly 9 percent. 

The budget advisory committee, whose nine members commissioners appoint, put together the county and unorganized territory budgets during five meetings that ended Nov. 2. But it left several key grant requests from nonprofits and other groups up to commissioners after it could not come to a consensus.

The groups are Destination Moosehead Lake, Eastern Area Agency on Aging, Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce, Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, Piscataquis County Soil and Water Conservation District and UMaine Cooperative Extension, which has an office in Dover-Foxcroft, County Manager Michael Williams said.

Their funding is still to be determined, but unofficial figures in the budget suggest their requests could be cut, in some cases in half or entirely.

Piscataquis, which is among the poorest counties in Maine, is trying to achieve a balanced budget while up against rising operational costs, like electrical utilities, and other demands. Those include a pay scale adjustment and retention bonus for sheriff’s department employees, the result of a negotiation between the county and union representing law enforcement. 

But area groups say they rely on the county’s funding to function and offer essential services to area residents. During a public hearing Monday night, those involved in a few of the groups asked the commissioners to consider their requests thoughtfully. 

“I know the budget work is difficult, and these are tough times for lots of people,” said Rick Cabot, a Cooperative Extension committee member. “My concern with defunding Extension is the children. … By losing this, it’s going to really impact the community.”

Cooperative Extension offers educational programming on food preservation, gardening and other topics. It gives residents access to UMaine’s research. It also runs 4-H, a youth development program whose work is essential to area children, especially given today’s mental health concerns, Cabot said.

It will cost $6,472,557 to run county operations next year, an 8.96 percent increase, according to the budget committe’s proposal. To help offset the increase, the county will use $334,378 in undesignated funds.

The committee decided to fund the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and a hospice program, which will get $1,800 and $2,200, respectively, its proposal shows. It did not allocate funding for Eastern Maine Development Corp. and Moosehead Lake Region Economic Development Corp., though a member asked the commission to reconsider.

There also was no funding for Piscataquis Regional Food Center, though it’s possible commissioners will revisit the request that came in after the budget process already began, County Manager Michael Williams said.

The food center submitted a request to commissioners Aug. 29, said Kelly Sirimoglu, executive director of the food center, on Wednesday. 

In 2023, the nonprofit was awarded $1,800, and it has submitted an invoice to the county, Sirimoglu said. This year, it requested $8,000, which represents 10 percent of its food budget for 2024, she said.

A few groups, such as Partners for Peace and a rape response program, did not submit requests, so no funding was allocated for them, said Sean Hadley, a Dover-Foxcroft resident and budget committee member.

Last year, commissioners slashed 10 percent of grants for all nonprofits, a move they said would lessen the burden on taxpayers. They also put a $100,000 cap on grants, which affected only the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council that was supposed to receive $115,000 and instead got $100,000.

The council requested $100,000 for 2024, which it relies on to function and offer grant-writing services to the community, Executive Director Angela Arno said. Its latest project is seeking proposals to develop a hotel in Dover-Foxcroft.

The local Cooperative Extension office requested $31,708 to operate 3.5 days a week next year, according to figures provided by Beth McEvoy, president of the executive committee. Because it received 10 percent less than its request for 2023, the committee used $4,000 in residual savings and a $4,000 one-time credit from UMaine to make up the difference, she said.

Receiving less than its request will likely mean the office will need to reduce hours.

“I don’t want to cut services to the people,” Commissioner Wayne Erkkinen said after the meeting. “Penquis supplies oil to people who run out in the winter. They don’t see who they give it to, but they do it quietly. That’s a necessary thing.”

Erkkinen would like to see the county fund nonprofits and other groups like it did last year, he said.

The 2024-25 unorganized territory budget will be $2,468,675, an 11.95 percent increase, according to the proposal. Williams attributed the rise to more road maintenance in the summer and winter, plus increased trash fees. 

Commissioners are next scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 5, at the Peaks House, 163 E. Main St. in Dover-Foxcroft. They will review the budget and make any changes they deem appropriate. Another budget committee meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6. The budget is set to be approved Dec. 12.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that any amendments to the budget would be made during the budget committee meeting Dec. 6. Commissioners will decide possible amendments Dec. 5.

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