Committee makes recommendation; county budget heads to public hearing

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FARMINGTON – The Franklin County’s budget committee signed off on a $2.18 million budget for a six-month fiscal cycle Monday evening, clearing the way for a public meeting on Dec. 15. The six-month budget is designed to bring the county in line with the state’s June/July fiscal schedule.

While the committee spent some time debating the “program grants” section of the budget, always a controversial topic, there was little discussion on the budget itself. County commissioners had directed all department heads to submit a flat-funded budget for the six-month period, which will last from Jan. 1, 2009, to June 30, 2009. This will bring the county in line with the state’s fiscal year, a necessity due to alterations in how the Franklin County Jail will be funded.

Meanwhile, the budget process will begin again in a couple months, as the commissioners and committee prepare a new, 12-month budget for the July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 fiscal year.

The committee chose not to add to some relatively minor changes the commissioners had already ordered, equaling a total of $85,000 in further cuts. These cuts include $40,000 in reductions within the Sheriff’s Department, mostly in reductions in the fuel line and a recalculation of employee wages as well as the commissioners deciding not to spend $22,000 for an additional cruiser.

Another $14,000 of the reduction represents commissioners standing by their policy of flat-funding community organizations and agencies such as Western Maine Transportation, Tri-County Mental Health Services and Western Maine Community Action. These agencies came forward with proposals to increase their funding, citing tough economic times, but the commissioners have remained set in their desire not to increase or include new agency line items in the budget.

The flat-funding method of funding only a list of specific agencies triggered debate within the budget committee, which is no change from the past few years. The system allows agencies to approach only one entity, the county, rather than many, the towns. However, some towns complain that their communities do now benefit as much as others from these nonprofit agencies. Others say that the method prevents a community from not donating to an agency and then having citizens use the services through a different town.

Committee members complained that the system was too inflexible, as it didn’t let new agencies be considered for funding and it didn’t allow for adjustments based on their circumstances. As an example, Western Maine Community Action Executive Director Fenwick Fowler argued before the committee that his agency should receive more that the flat-funded recommendation of $16,500, given the difficult and essential tasks his agency would be performing over the course of an economic and seasonal winter.

“We think the community needs it,” Fowler said, “and we think the county sees a direct return.”

Wilton Selectman and Budget Committee Member Russell Black, among others, noted that the current system needed another look. However, he also said making an exception for a single agency without looking at the entire system could be problematic.

“Just to play devil’s advocate here,” he said, “once you’ve stopped flat-funding one group, they’re all going to want it.”

The committee expressed interest in developing a criteria for agencies under consideration for county funding, beyond the current system of same organizations and same funding.

The budget’s public meeting will be held on Dec. 15, at 6 p.m. in the Franklin County Courthouse’s large courtroom, which is on the second floor.

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