County Tax to Increase, Calais in Opposition

By Lura Jackson

 

The budget and associated taxes for Washington County will be increasing if the recommendations of the commissioners are upheld on Thursday, November 9th. The increase is in part due to a vote from county commissioners to add an additional officer to the sheriff’s department. The primary voice opposing the increase was Calais Mayor Billy Howard, who voted to keep the budget flat. Despite Howard’s opposition, the proposed budget will be increasing over last year’s by 7.78 percent, meaning Calais’s payment to the county will be increasing by $21,819. In the previous year, Calais paid $281,522 of the county’s total budget of $5,773,591. The approved increase means the total budget will be $447,482 over last year’s.  

“We’re on the verge of trying to tell people that we’re going to cut their water and sewer off because they can’t pay their taxes and you guys just want to keep raising taxes?” Howard recounted of his conversation with the advisory committee. “The last three years it’s been consistently between $15,000 and $20,000 a year that it’s being raised on us.”

“People that aren’t even members of this community are giving us tax increases,” said City Councilor Mike Sherrard upon receiving the news at an Economic and Community Development Committee meeting on Friday, November 3rd. Sherrard expressed his frustration regarding how much the city is working to keep taxes flat while maintaining services and how the task is made more difficult by the rising costs of the county. While it was pointed out that Vinton Cassidy, who represents District I as County Commissioner is from Calais, Cassidy represents 24 different territories, including Calais, Alexander, Baileyville, Charlotte, Princeton, Robbinston, and Vanceboro.

The Budget Advisory Committee consists of Billy Howard of Calais, Rick Bronson of Baileyville, Tom Moholland of Robbinston, Meghan Dennison of Machias, Renee Gray of Lubec, Elaine Abbott of Eastport, Richard Fickett of Cherryfield, Lisa Hanscom of Roque Bluffs, and Lewis Pinkham of Milbridge, along with Joyce Maker from the state legislature.

The county budget includes emergency management, district attorney, county administration, county finance, buildings and grounds, Regional Communications Center [RCC], the jail, deeds, probate, the sheriff’s department, insurance, employee benefits, debt service, capital reserves, and a contingency fund. Aside from the additional officer, the increase is caused by raises in fuel costs, insurance, and contracts with employees. “Everybody wants to try to hold the line with budget, but costs are going up,” Cassidy said.

According to Howard, Rick Bronson and Elaine Pagels stated that they were both advised by their council to not vote for an increase, but they both did. “He’s going out, what does he care?” Howard said, referring to Bronson and how he is resigning from his position as Town Manager. 

Countering Howard’s statement, however, Cassidy said that Pagels and Bronson said that they were instructed to vote against the initial proposal of having three new officers in the sheriff’s department. That proposal would have increased the budget for the sheriff’s department from $951,831 to $1,414,271. Per Cassidy, Pagels and Bronson did vote to support one additional officer, which represents an increase of approximately $100,000. 

The increase is merited, Cassidy expressed, due to the drug problem in Washington County, a sentiment echoed by Joyce Maker. While Howard said during Friday’s meeting that Maker made the comment that the city is “going down a dark path by not raising taxes,” Maker clarified that she was referring to “the inability for citizens to visit the police station and to have more visual contact with our police.” Maker said she was concerned that Calais has dropped its officers down from 8 to 5. Regarding the sheriff’s department, which she said covers one of the biggest counties in the state of Maine, it does not have sufficient coverage to stay open 24/7. Because of that, and because she represents towns that do not have their own police force, Maker is in favor of increasing the number of officers in the sheriff’s department. “As one of the members stated, we should probably have at least 10 new ones, but we cannot afford it at this time,” Maker said. “There are no magic answers, for sure, but we have to protect our citizens even if we can’t do it the way we should be able to because of the same reason we can’t fund schools. We just don’t have the economy to uphold what we need.”

In challenging the increase to the sheriff’s department and the county budget overall, Howard suggested that the sheriff’s department should be the first thing to be cut. “Get rid of it altogether. Let the towns worry about their own towns. We’re already paying half a million for our town,” Howard said, referring to the cost of the Calais police department.

Despite its higher population, Calais does not pay the highest amount of taxes to the county. Calais pays $281,522, while Baileyville pays $343,358, Lubec pays $292,419, and Milbridge pays $283,338. As a direct result of its higher population, however, Calais does have the highest use of some services in the county. 19 percent of calls through the RCC are from Calais, compared with the next highest city, Machias, which comprises 12 percent of total calls. “We’re the highest users,” said Cassidy. Calls to the RCC from Calais have increased from 633 in 2008 to 3,939 in 2016, reflecting the shift in dispatching organization.

While there are clearly differences in opinion as to what the county budget should be allocated to and how to manage services moving forward, there is agreement that the cost of prisoners is one of the heaviest loads on the county. The court system is overburdened by drug-related cases and prisoners often wait for long periods of time before their cases are heard. Howard cited one instance of an individual charged with being a pedophile that is costing the county $5,000 a month due to specific medications and other needs.