FARMINGTON — Several people Wednesday night spoke on behalf of nonprofit agencies Franklin County officials are proposing cutting or eliminating funding for, saying Western Maine Transportation Services, Western Maine Community Action and other groups are needed and are doing good work in Franklin County communities.

Members of the Franklin County Budget Committee — from right, Josh Bell, Tiffany Mauri, Ray Gaudette, Morgan Dunham, Judy Diaz, Keith Swett and Bob Luce — listen Wednesday in Farmington to residents at a public hearing on cuts to program grants. Morning Sentinel photo by Rachel Ohm

“I can’t stand it when I see social services being cut for the needy,” Farmington resident Ann Arbor said during the public hearing at Franklin County Superior Court. “It drives me nuts that hungry people might not get Meals on Wheels, that people that are stuck in their house might not have a bus to get to a doctor’s appointment.

“It drives me nuts we don’t take care of the people in our community and we say, ‘Well they should get somebody to help them.’ Who? Sometimes there is no ‘who.'”

Wednesday’s public hearing comes as the county is considering a $6.7 million 2019-2020 budget from county commissioners and $6.64 million from the county Budget Committee.

Of that, both groups are considering less than $45,000 for so-called program grants, which represent a small group of nonprofits and social service agencies the county traditionally has funded.

Over the last few years, program grants have endured steep cuts from the county. From 2014 to 2019, county funding for program grants was cut 75 percent and the number of groups funded dropped from 11 to five.

For the upcoming year, county commissioners are recommending $44,700 in total spending on program grants but are recommending not funding Western Maine Transportation Services, an Auburn-based group that provides bus routes and transportation services throughout western Maine.

The Budget Committee also is recommending no funding for Western Maine Transportation, which had requested $10,000.

Sandra Buchanan, general manager and operations director for Western Maine Transportation, was among several people Wednesday night who spoke in support of the group.

“Most of us here today don’t have concerns about how we got here, how we get to medical appointments or work,” she said. “Others are not so fortunate.”

Jolene Lovejoy, who is on the group’s board of directors, also spoke on its behalf.

“We’re talking about a very fragile community here,” Lovejoy said. “We’re an aging population and it won’t be long until some of us in this room won’t be able to drive a car. Does that mean we need to be homebound for the rest of our lives? What about a handicapped person who needs to get to their job? These are the people who rely on Western Maine Transportation.”

Rhonda Irish, a resident of Jay, also asked the committee to reconsider their lack of funding for Western Maine Transportation.

In addition to the needs of the elderly and handicapped, Irish said the public transportation system, which operates on-demand in Franklin County and recently launched a new commuter route from Farmington to Lewiston, is needed to get people to and from work.

“It’s a little difficult being in a rural area,” Irish said. “We’re not exactly from the cities, but (the transportation service) is growing and we have had a lot of requests from businesses to provide more transportation.”

Winnie Shink, also of Jay, said the service is critical for getting her intellectually disabled son to his job at Walmart in Farmington.

“If it wasn’t for Western Maine, my son would be sitting at home doing probably nothing and sitting in front of the TV,” Shink said. “I realize there are times when certain departments have to be taken back, but I can’t think of a situation that is more in need (of funding) than our intellectually (disabled) who need help.”

During about 45 minutes of public comment allocated for program grants, no one spoke in favor of cutting or eliminating funding.

“Western Maine Transportation Services has gotten me to appointments that were critical for me,” said Paula Widmer, of Farmington.

Although the service can be slow or hard to work with sometimes, Widmer said it’s a necessity for the elderly in Franklin County.

“Without it, I’m constantly angling for rides from people; and if you’ve never done that, you don’t know how humiliating it feels,” she said.

Others Wednesday night also spoke in support of Western Maine Community Action, which provides heating and fuel assistance and workforce development for low- and middle-income families.

“Many, many families and individuals have been helped by their programs,” Wilton resident Gwen Doak said. “These are things that don’t benefit just one town. It’s a countywide responsibility.”

Some Budget Committee members said Wednesday they were not in favor of the cuts to program grants approved last month.

“This is not unanimous,” member Tiffany Mauri said. “For myself, I support fully funding the nonprofit agencies. It’s equally divided. It’s not unanimous. There are some of us on this committee that fully support nonprofits.”

Committee member Judy Diaz, however, asked how the county is supposed to pick which nonprofit groups to fund.

“They’re federally funded,” she said. “They’re state-funded. How do you pick and choose which ones you fund or don’t fund?”

The committee is scheduled to meet again June 12 for a final vote on the budget, which also need approval from the county commissioners.

Discussion of other aspects of the budget Wednesday night was minimal, though County Treasurer Pam Prodan did ask the committee to consider giving employees in her department 3% cost-of-living raises, as opposed to the 2 percent currently proposed.

Prodan said the 3 percent increase would bring pay more in line with the 3%-to-5% percent raises proposed for union employees.

“When I ran for office, I never thought I would have to come to the county commissioners or budget advisory committee to ask for a reasonable (cost-of-living increase) for my staff,” Prodan said.

 


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