ELLSWORTH — In a 6-1 vote at their monthly meeting on June 20, city councilors approved a budget that will ask for $21,130,072 from taxpayers in fiscal year 2023, a 1.45 percent increase over last year’s budget, which sought to raise $20,822,790 in tax revenue.
The approval is the culmination of a months-long, collaborative effort through which the city manager, city staff and council worked to determine the most effective way to run the city without overburdening taxpayers in these uncertain economic times.
Despite the extended discussions ahead of Monday’s meeting, there were still several changes made to the budget before it was passed, including a $39,023 cut to the budget request made by the Ellsworth Public Library.
Library officials and some city councilors have been at odds over the city shouldering the lion’s share of the library budget even though many patrons live outside Ellsworth. But it appeared after the budget workshops that the library had enough support to receive the full $539,023 appropriation from the city that it had requested.
Councilor Marc Blanchette opened the discussion by suggesting the council roll the library budget back to the same amount that was allocated last year, $463,000, arguing that the requested $76,000 increase was unwarranted. His motion to make the cut, seconded by Councilor Bob Miller, failed, as councilors Casey Hanson, Michelle Kaplan, Steve O’Halloran and Gene Lyons voted against it.
It was then that Kaplan, a defender of the library throughout the budget process, offered a “compromise” number of $500,000. That motion was seconded by Council Chairman Dale Hamilton and passed by a vote of 5-2, with Hanson and O’Halloran voting no.
The library’s board of trustees, which is currently in the process of hiring a new executive director for the library, had no comment on the decision.
Following a discussion regarding the amount of emergency calls that the city receives, the council voted 6-1 to add an additional dispatcher position back into the budget to help alleviate some of the stress on current staff, especially as call levels increase. During that discussion, Fire Chief Scott Guillerault made an impassioned plea for the inclusion of an additional firefighter position that had been included in his original budget request but was removed during the workshop process.
“All the departments in this city are running short, and it’s hard to prioritize,” Guillerault began. “But I’m concerned about the safety of my crews, I’m concerned about the safety of the people in this city. They [firefighters] are running calls left and right, running a lot of EMS, and they’re on scene longer now than they’ve ever had to be … last weekend we couldn’t even get to a call because we were short shift. We weren’t able to respond to a call because we were waiting for an ambulance. For me we’re kind of in a no-win situation here.”
In response, Blanchette raised the idea of putting the firefighter position back into the budget on the condition that, if the grant that the department has applied for to add three additional firefighters comes through by Sept. 30, the city-funded position would be removed.
Guillerault was amenable to that plan, as was the council, which voted 6-1 to add that position back into the budget.
Several other motions made by council members failed to gain any traction during the discussion. Blanchette made a motion to remove the $1,000 that the city was going to donate to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. The motion failed to receive a second and therefore failed without the need for a vote.
A motion made by Hanson to remove $5,000 from the $10,000 allocated in the budget for the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce and redistribute it among organizations that helped people with transportation and food insecurity also failed to receive a second.
Representing the only “no” vote on several of the motions, and the lone vote opposed to the overall passage of the budget, O’Halloran expressed a desire for further cuts across the board. He suggested sending the budget back to the department heads to find $1 million in cuts. City Manager Glenn Moshier, who works with each department on the budgets that are presented to the council, was skeptical that any additional savings could be found.
“If I thought there was $1 million to be cut out of this budget, it would have been cut out of this budget,” Moshier told the council.
With the passage of the municipal portion of the budget, the final piece of the puzzle is voter approval of the school budget that has already been approved by the council. The vote on that budget will be held Tuesday, July 12, but absentee ballots can be picked up at City Hall in advance.