Deputy Debate Heats Up, Committee Kicks Budget Back To County Commissioners

Calais Mayor Billy Howard (far left) said he believes towns without their own police departments should “step up” and find ways to pay for their law enforcement. Calais pays to fund its own police department through city tax. (Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon)

By Sarah Craighead Dedmon

Less than two weeks before state law requires them to submit their recommendations, the county budget committee voted 9-1 to halt their work and send an unfinished budget back to the commissioners, cutting a scheduled three-hour meeting on Oct. 31 down to 32 minutes. Rep. Will Tuell (R - E. Machias) was the lone dissenting vote. 

Machias Finance Director Megan Dennison made the motion that shortened the meeting, saying the budget should go back to the commissioners for their recommendations for cuts. 

“I do question why we vote on these by each department if, when it comes down to it, it all just gets moved around and the commissioners are able to over-expend some departments? Should we just figure out a bottom line?” asked Dennison.

 The county budget is reviewed on a department-by-department basis by the committee but legally managed as a “bottom line” budget by the commissioners, meaning they are authorized to use the final lump sum as they see fit.

Though nine committee members voted to return the budget to the commissioners, they had differing reasons for doing so.

Jonesport Selectman Harry Fish said he did not feel the committee had the information it needs to make an informed fiscal decision about the budget, particularly how the county can pay for the proposed addition of three sheriff’s deputies. The first-year cost of those deputies and necessary equipment could add about $400,000 to the budget, for an overall increase of roughly 6.6 percent if no other cuts are found.  

“Part of the discussion from the night before was, are there unexpended funds that could be used to go towards this cost? There didn’t appear to be any good answer whether there was any, and if so, how much,” said Fish. “I need to know a lot more so I can make a more informed decision.”

Budget committee member Wendy Schoppee of Jonesboro said she would like the commissioners to find funds to offset the cost of one or two deputies without increasing taxation. 

At a public hearing held Tuesday, Oct. 30 it was suggested that the commissioners should take money to pay for one deputy from the county’s undesignated funds.

According to county treasurer Jill Holmes, part of what was available in the undesignated funds has recently been applied to the 2019 budget currently being worked by the committee, totaling $67,371.12 across more than two dozen accounts. 

Chairman Chris Gardner said the commissioners strive to keep enough money in the undesignated fund and reserve accounts to prevent large peaks and valleys in the budget, and that they must keep a certain amount in reserve to run the county each year until the tax anticipation note is received and in use, usually by March, meaning there aren’t large amounts of money to be applied toward funding deputies.

Tuell strongly disagreed with the committee’s decision. 

“The committee should have worked through the budget, and if people felt there needed to be cuts, they should have come up with some,” he said. “I had some ideas for cuts but we never got there, because they abruptly handed it back to the commissioners. It really is the budget committee that should be coming up with some suggestions.”

Who should pay for deputies?

Representatives of towns with their own police departments, such as Eastport, Baileyville and Calais have said they don’t want to pay more for sheriff’s deputies, which are the primary source of law enforcement for towns without police departments.

Calais mayor Billy Howard has been an outspoken opponent of the tax hike, pointing to too-high property taxes and the fact that Calais residents already pay city taxes to fund their own police department. At a hearing held the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 30 Howard, also a realtor, said the committee has added one deputy to the county payroll each year for the prior three years.

“Some of these towns, Lubec for example, Jonesport for example, at one time paid for extra [police] coverage. They do not do it anymore, whether they weren’t happy with the taxes or not happy with the sheriff,” said Howard. “If you want the service, you need to step up. You all want all of us to step up, but you’re not stepping up.” 

Of that $319,000, Calais’ share of the proposed 2019 county tax hike is $22,421.89. County taxes also increased in FY 2018 and FY 2017.

The calculation of each town’s tax share is based on the town’s valuation, set by the state. For instance, the state values Calais at $171,300,000, making it the third highest-value town in the county behind Baileyville ($301,950,000) and Lubec ($173,650,000). 

During the Tuesday hearing Machias resident Richard Larson said he supported adding three deputies but could not support the way the county tax burden is distributed. “It seems to me the sheriff’s office budget could be allocated differently. A simple solution could be that 50 percent of the budget could be allocated to all of the towns, and 50 percent to the towns that elect not to have [their own police] protection.” Howard signaled his approval.

However, Gardner said that is not possible, because how the county raises taxes is written in state law.

“But it does open a bit of Pandora’s box to say we just want to look at how the sheriff’s department is run,” said Gardner. “Because then the question becomes, do we look at which towns are using the jail the most? And if they’re using the jail more than, say, the town of Charlotte, should there be a different formulation for how the jail is funded, too?”

Fair representation?

Fair representation on the budget committee has been another heated aspect of the debate this budget cycle.  

Committee chairman Lewis Pinkham opened the Wednesday morning committee meeting sharing some frustrations about the previous night’s hearing.

“I’ve been on this committee 11 or 12 years now and this is the first time that we were...convinced to have one of these types of meetings and my understanding...is the reason we had that meeting is that some people didn't think this group could make a fair decision and a fair vote without having that type of input,” said Pinkham. “I didn’t get onto this committee to be second-guessed and challenged in this way.”

Fish said he is concerned that not all of the budget committee members are representing the wishes of their entire district, but only the wishes of their own town. That debate was tipped off at an earlier meeting when Eastport City Manager Elaine Abbott said that her city council had instructed her to vote against the deputies.  

“I was elected to this budget committee and I took it with the assumption that I was representing Washington and particularly western Washington County,” said Fish. “I needed to know what most of the people in my district felt besides how I personally felt about it.” [see inset box, “Who opposes, who favors adding three deputies?”]

Finishing the budget 

For now, Gardner said the commissioners have sent the budget back out to county department heads asking for suggestions on additional cuts and will return it to the committee when that process is complete. The next meeting of the budget committee has not yet been scheduled. 

Maine Revised Statutes Title 30-A outlines the process for both entities through the end of the calendar year. 

The budget committee has until roughly Nov. 15 to return their recommendations to the commissioners, and the budget must pass with a two-thirds majority of the budget committee. The commissioners must act on that budget no later than Dec.16 and schedule additional meetings if changes are needed. The committee’s version of the budget can be changed by the commissioners with a two-thirds vote, and if that happens the committee can reject that change with a two-thirds vote of its membership.

The entire budget process must be completed by Dec. 31 of this year.

The commissioners will hold their regular monthly meeting this Thursday, Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. in the probate court room of the Washington County Courthouse in Machias.