The proposed Washington County budget calls for an unprecedented hike of almost 20%, with the amount to be raised through taxation of the county’s municipalities at $8.68 million, a little less than $1.5 million over the previous year’s amount and over $2 million more than the county’s 2020 budget.
The total FY 2024 budget is for $11.89 million.
“I’ve never seen an increase like this,” said county commission chair Chris Gardner. “At least not in my 20 years” in the position. “We always try to keep it at 3% to 5%” for an increase.
Because of the significant increase, the county’s Budget Advisory Committee held a public hearing on the evening of October 16, but Chair Lewis Pinkham had hoped that more would attend than the 30 or so present who were not directly affiliated with county operations, such as the sheriff’s department.
Gardner echoed the sentiment. “I was hoping to get more input from the public hearing.”
He added, “As a commissioner it seemed like a one‑sided conversation.” The increase in the budget, Pinkham told those present, “is a pretty high amount.”
Gardner said, “It’s going to be hard to get this budget done. Things are too large.”
He added, “Public safety is a big driver, but [the cost] of everything is going up.”
Over the years the county budget has slowly increased, but never at a rate of 20%. In 2018 the county commissioners whittled the proposed 2019 budget down from a proposed increase of 6.7% to 0.13% to a total of $7.66 million, with $6.23 million to be raised by taxation. In 2020 the budget rose to $8.37 million, with $6.25 million to be raised by taxation.
Increases would raise tax rates
A Marshfield selectman at the public hearing explained the conundrum communities are facing. “I believe the [county] budget needs to serve people. We have a responsibility to the town for the budget, but we also need to keep townspeople safe.”
Having a long wait time for law enforcement to respond to an emergency is not what anyone wants to face when it’s they who are waiting. A Milbridge selectman echoed the same concerns, adding that he is “concerned about citizens on fixed incomes and what it’ll mean to have a budget increase of 20% or more. There are no good answers here.”
Gardner responded by saying that the “state continuously puts its boot on the neck” of the county government. “Any major problem the county is facing can trace its roots straight down I‑95” to Augusta.
If the budget stands at its current increase, the impact on what municipalities and unorganized territories (UT) would pay in county taxes would range from 0.5% to over 9%, with the percentage of increase not necessarily reflecting the actual impact it could have on a community. For example, the UT would see a 9.65% increase of $134,000 to its 2024 valuation of $4.9 million for a total tax of $842,000.
Lubec would have a 5.6% increase of $109,000 to its 2024 valuation of $2.84 million for a total tax of $489,000. Eastport would see a 4.2% increase of $95,000 to its 2024 valuation of $2.14 million, for a total tax of $369,000. Calais would see a 4.6% increase of $77,500 to its 2024 valuation of $2.35 million, for a total tax of $405,000.
The increase is felt by property owners through an uptick in the mill rate on their property tax bill. A list of the county’s communities with corresponding valuations and tax implications is available on the county’s website.
Most departments see increases
Other than a decrease of 29% in the insurance line, the majority of the county’s departments saw budget increases.
The most significant were in the Regional Communications Center (RCC), the county jail, the sheriff’s department and employee benefits. The benefits, which would correspond to the increase of eight staff wages added to the payroll and contract renewals for other staff, would increase by $616,400, from $2.83 million to $3.44 million. The county building line item would increase by one staff member, rising from the current budget of $403,000 to $457,000.
There would be a 31.9% increase for the RCC, increasing from the current budget of $$935,000 to $1.23 million. The RCC is proposing to add four new staff positions to help with the increase and complexity of calls coming in.
RCC Deputy Director Joshua Rolfe explained that all four positions are “absolutely necessary” in order to staff four shifts 24/7. “I don’t know how to say it any more plainly,” he added.
The county jail would see a 10.7% increase from $2.17 million to $2.4 million. While no additional staff would be added to the jail budget, the $232,000 proposed increase was mostly from higher costs for gasoline, vehicle repairs, heating oil, which increased from $32,000 to $52,000, and more. Wages would increase by 6.74%, from $1.43 million to $1.53 million.
The sheriff’s department would add two new officers but three new wages, explained Chief Deputy Michael Crabtree. “It will allow an extra deputy per shift,” meaning quicker responses, he added. Wages would increase by almost 19%, from $1.3 million to $1.54 million. The total sheriff’s department budget would increase from $2.24 million to $2.54 million, up by $290,000.
The increase in staffing has been discussed in previous articles in The Quoddy Tides about the pressures being faced by the department since changes made to the Maine State Police presence in the county. “It’s a big area to cover,” said Sheriff Barry Curtis.
Currently the department is covering the entire county with four deputies per shift. He said, “There’s going to be some stuff we’ll have to back off of if we don’t get this budget.”
Following the public hearing, the Maine Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #006, representing full‑time patrol deputies for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, issued a statement in support of the increase for the sheriff’s office.
It says, in part, “Minimum staffing to maintain coverage and officer safety has resulted in extended tours of duty and fewer days off as we cover vacant shifts. To keep pace with increased call volume and travel times, our deputies have been forced to be more reactive than proactive in their approach to crime and enforcement. Most seriously, citizens face extended response times and our deputies are at greater risk of responding to dangerous calls with extended travel times for backup officers. None of this bodes well for the long‑term well‑being of our deputies or the state of public safety in Washington County.”
In response to the county budget issues, Senator Marianne Moore has proposed introducing two bills in the legislature to help address the staffing problems. One would provide state funding for four dispatchers at the RCC and one would provide funding for two deputies at the sheriff’s department. The Legislative Council was expected to consider them on October 26.
Moore said she expects the acts will be turned down for introduction into this session, but she’ll appeal the decision if they are. Moore explains that the state police have 52 vacancies that are funded that they can’t fill. They were asked if some of those funds could be reallocated to fund sheriff deputies, and the state police said they could not be as they are earmarked funds.
Moore said she may pursue these legislative bills even if the county budget ends up including the funding for the positions, as she wants to supplement funding for the county.
County Budget Advisory Committee Chair Pinkham urges county residents to contact the budget committee member affiliated with their district. Contact information is available on the county’s website. In addition, the next budget committee meeting will be held on Thursday, November 9, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon at the 28 Center Street conference room in Machias.