ELLSWORTH – Hancock County commissioners were pleased to present an initial budget last Friday that reflected only a minimum increase to taxpayers, but they know it could be the last time the budget process is this easy.
Commissioner Fay Lawson said that while the proposed Taxpayer Bill of Rights didn’t play a direct role in their decision making, it was in the back of minds the entire time.
“We tried to budget as usual, but it lurked in the background,” Lawson said of the statewide spending cap proposal known as TABOR. “It will be a horror if it’s passed.”
Commissioners presented their $7 million budget for 2007 on Friday, announcing an increase of just 1.8 percent over the year before. The budget will be reviewed by an advisory committee before it is voted on in December.
It was the third consecutive year the county has increased taxes at or below the rate of inflation.
“This was remarkably easy, the best we’ve seen in a long time,” Lawson said. “Our goal is to be as tight as we can and the departments were good this year. Any time you can keep the tax increase below 2 percent, that’s about as good as you can do.”
She warned, though, that TABOR would significantly reduce their ability to provide needed services in the future.
“Judging by other states, the cumulative affect is seen year to year, but it looks like budgets could end up 15-20 percent below what you start with,” Lawson said.
No specific departments will see a significant impact if the 2007 budget is passed, but Commissioner Ken Shea said the Hancock County Jail will take the biggest hit.
In the past, the jail has taken in considerable revenue by allowing other counties to board their inmates at Hancock County. Last year, though, those numbers were down because inmates were being sent to other counties, and Shea said the county can’t count on a revenue increase for 2007.
“It’s inevitable that the demand for inmate space will decline, but it will have quite an impact on our budget,” Shea said. “Fortunately, we are strong in other areas so the effect will be softened.”
The county also entertained the idea of replacing the county clerk position with a county administrator. Hancock County Clerk Ray Bickford Jr. stepped down recently due to health reasons.
But Shea said while the change would align Hancock County with many other Maine counties, it wasn’t economically feasible this time around.
“It would have added another $30,000 to $40,000 and we didn’t feel like we could recommend that at this time,” he said.
The commissioners said they were happy with the process and they hope the budget advisory committee agrees.
In the meantime, they’ll probably be keeping an eye on polls related to referendum Question 1, which will determine whether or not TABOR passes.
“I think Democrats and Republicans alike hope voters come to their senses in November,” said Lawson, a Democrat.
Shea, her Republican colleague, concurred.
“I’m as conservative as anyone, but [TABOR] is not the way to approach [taxes],” he said.