ELLSWORTH — A holiday miracle might be in order for the Hancock County Commissioners.
The board wants a flat budget for the new fiscal year starting Jan. 1. The deadline for passing a new budget is Dec. 15.
Between now and then, the commissioners have to shave nearly 7 percent from a draft budget. That has to be accomplished while contending with a $250,000-plus shortfall in state jail funding and requests from regional nonprofit groups seeking county contributions.
The commissioners continued their budget wrangling at a meeting Nov. 18.
During the meeting, County Administrator Eugene Conlogue spoke briefly about where the budget stands to date. Also, members of the Hancock County Advisory Committee commented, as did a few residents representing nonprofit organizations seeking county funds.
The county’s total proposed budget as it stands this week is $8,188,517.
The Budget Advisory Committee recommends an amount to be raised by taxation totaling $5,695,724.
Conlogue said if no changes are made, the county would have to raise an additional $358,087 in taxes. That’s an increase of 6.71 percent over the current budget year.
However, at least two commissioners, Steve Joy and Percy “Joe” Brown, said they won’t sign a budget that isn’t flat. Commissioner Antonio Blasi was absent.
“I’m not satisfied with this number and I’m not sure what the solution is,” Brown said. “I’m not sure how we’re going to solve that problem.”
Joy added, “A 7 percent increase is really not acceptable. There is work to be done and we’re doing it now. We’re looking in every nook and cranny. There comes a day where you can’t cut anymore until you fire people. We’re not there yet.”
If no budget is voted in, the county would revert to operating on the FY 2015 budget, similar to what schools do when voters fail to approve a new school budget.
“One of the things that really hurt us is the jail,” Brown said.
The Hancock County Jail consumes nearly 30 percent of overall county spending. The state has underfunded jail operations for the past three years, according to the commissioners.
Further complicating matters is a piece of legislation called LD 1, which harkens back to former Governor John Baldacci.
LD 1 limits county tax assessments and local property taxes to Maine’s income and population growth.
Conlogue explained that LD 1 is “a way of setting limitations on government spending.”
Counties aren’t allowed to raise funds for corrections any higher than the LD 1 growth rate or 3 percent, whichever is lowest.
So, the county jail isn’t receiving funding it’s owed to operate the jail, but the county commissioners have no way of raising additional funds to cover that deficit.
This fall, Hancock County filed suit against the state for $127,000 it owes the county from a previous fiscal year. The current FY 2015 shortfall in state funding is $130,000.
“The Legislature needs to fund the jails,” Brown said. “I hope when they meet this year they’ll properly fund it.”
A few Budget Advisory Committee members attended the meeting, including Blue Hill Selectman Jim Schatz.
“We took a conservative approach,” Schatz said of the committee. “You can only nickel and dime so much.”
A few members of groups seeking county funds attended the meeting as well.
Marjorie Peronto, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator, asked commissioners when they would be making their final budget decisions. Brown replied, “December 15th.”
The commissioners had voted to reduce funding for “third party requests” by 5 percent.
However, the Budget Advisory Committee unanimously voted to flat fund the requests.
Overruling the advisory committee’s vote would take a unanimous vote of the commissioners.
Sue Baez, the Hancock County Extension’s office manager, said at that meeting the county was asking the agency to “take a $9,000 hit.”
The extension office requested $74,664. Baez said Monday that if the county flat funds the agency, it will receive $73,200. That’s about 10 percent of the extension’s total year budget of $758,000 in Hancock County.
“It will harm our budget quite a bit,” Baez said. The cut will affect the youth and Master Gardener programs.
Master Gardener Jane Freeman told the commissioners at an earlier meeting that for every hour she volunteers, she’s saving not only the county but the state over $20.
The gardeners, between youth and master, have volunteered over 6,000 hours this year and donated over $120,000 worth of fresh produce to area food pantries, Freeman said.
Other groups are seeking county contributions as well, including Eastern Maine Development Corp., which seeks $9,000.
Schatz asked how much federal funding EMDC receives and what it would do with the county’s donation.
The answer: $3.9 million and the $9,000 from Hancock County could go toward six people getting certified nurse’s aide training.
“Could that not be found in the $3.9 million?” Schatz asked.
Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings advised that most of the nursing homes provide their own CNA training at no cost.
Other groups seeking funding include Special Children’s Friends, which serves preschoolers with special needs, The Next Step Domestic Violence Project, the Hancock County Firefighters Association and the Hancock County Planning Commission.