ROCKLAND — A budget for Knox County government approved Wednesday night will increase the tax rate by an estimated 5 cents per $1,000 in property valuation.
The county budget committee held the second of its two public hearings at the District Court building before closing to discuss final approval of the spending plan. Of the 17 people in the audience, just three were not county employees, elected officials or members of the news media.
Though two committee members wanted to cut from an account that pays for new vehicles for the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, the most recent draft of the budget was approved intact.
That budget calls for spending $4,952,100, up $466,081 from last year. Revenues are estimated at $1,025,611. With $200,000 in surplus funds applied to the bottom line, the tax assessment for county towns totals $3,762,489.
The estimated mill rate, averaged for the whole county, is $1.25 per $1,000 in property valuation. The actual rate will be set next month when the state finalizes its valuation figures for municipalities. For a property valued at $100,000, the county tax will be about $125.
Last year’s mill rate for county taxes was $1.20, down from $1.23 in 1997.
During the hearing, Brian Field of St. George told the committee he was concerned about the county’s funding of a dispatch center that serves both the Sheriff’s Department and Rockland and the towns that contract with Rockland. In November, a referendum on a $500,000 bond that would have paid for adding on to the Knox County Law Enforcement Facility to accommodate the dispatch center and the coming Enhanced-911 service was defeated.
“The only way the taxpayers can voice their opinion is to vote, and they voted this down,” Field said. The county is still proceeding with the merged dispatch center in opposition to the voters’ will, he said.
Committee member Bob Dennison spoke in support of Field’s comments. He said those who voted against the bond did not want to spend the money “and didn’t want to change what they already had.”
The county’s efforts to establish a Public Safety Answering Point to handle all E-911 calls made in Knox County have been controversial, despite the facts that the state has mandated the center be established and that county voters supported E-911 as a concept 10 years ago. Towns can retain their own dispatch centers, which would get the E-911 caller information routed from the central answering point, but towns will still have to pay for the service.
“They’re going to be paying twice,” Field said. “It’s not fair for the taxpayers to pay twice for the same product.”
Committee member Ed Glaser said the county’s arrangement with Rockland for 2000 was favorable to the county, with the city paying $195,700 next year toward the operation of the center. What happens after next year has skeptics concerned, Glaser admitted.
Dennison asked that county communications officials keep track of how many calls for service seek Rockland police, fire and ambulance, and how many request county law enforcement officers. Chief Deputy Todd Butler said it was possible to track this information, and County Commissioner Lawrence Nash, who was present, agreed to support the request.
Committee member Bart Vergie said he opposed the $80,000 budgeted for vehicles in the Sheriff’s Department budget. He said $50,000 was budgeted last year, and that in the last three years, a total of $171,284 was spent on patrol vehicles.
Butler replied that the department replaces less than a third of its vehicles each year, which is below the national average. Last year the department actually spent $65,000 buying two police package cruisers and one administrative vehicle, he added, suggesting the $80,000 requested was not out of line.
Vergie countered that the department does not have to buy top-of-the-line vehicles, such as Jeeps and Chevrolet Tahoes, which are under consideration.
Committee chairwoman Mary Waterman said if Vergie were looking to cut the budget, vehicles “and the ammunition is the last place I’d look.” Of the deputies, she said, “You’re asking them to do a job that put them in harm’s way,” and that with suspects having fast vehicles, deputies needed the same.
A motion by committee member Jamie Arrison to cut the line from $80,000 to $70,000 failed 2-6.
Commissioners meet Jan. 11, when they are expected to accept the budget.