FARMINGTON — Franklin County commissioners will continue to withhold a $12,500 payment to a nonprofit agency they say hasn’t been transparent but begrudgingly moved to renew the agency’s funding for the coming year on Tuesday.

For at least the last two years, funding for nonprofits in the county budget has divided county commissioners and members of the Budget Advisory Committee, which last week voted to slightly increase spending on nonprofits after public pushback to proposed cuts.

Commissioners, who ultimately approved a $6.75 million county budget Tuesday, also dedicated time to renewing the debate over funding for so-called program grants, which are nonprofits and social services, in the county budget.

“Some of those programs are enablers,” said District 1 Commissioner and Chairman Terry Brann. “Personally, after the (budget committee) meeting, I went to the Western Maine Transportation finance person that was there, and she said she was going to give me some information because I had been told it costs up to $8 per mile to operate.

“She said she would dispute that and send me correct figures, and I haven’t received anything. I don’t expect to because I think it’s an astronomical number.”

Both Brann and District 2 Commissioner Charlie Webster advocated Tuesday for cutting all funding for Western Maine Transportation Services and Western Maine Community Action, which the budget committee has slated for $10,000 and $30,000 respectively.

After the meeting, Brann did receive the information via fax from Sandy Buchanan, general manager and operations director for Western Maine Transportation Services. She said the total cost per mile for transit services funded by Franklin County is $3.07 per mile.

Brann also criticized Chris Sheffler, a regular rider of the Western Maine Transportation bus who was recently featured in a Morning Sentinel article, and defended the county’s 75% cuts to its budget for nonprofits over the last five years.

Sheffler said he chooses to use the public transportation service because he doesn’t have a car and doesn’t have the time or money to learn to drive or buy a car.

“It’s a choice he makes,” Brann said. “He doesn’t have any injuries or anything. He opts not to drive, so I don’t support programs that enable people to abuse them. I’m not going to vote for those programs that allow people to abuse them.”

Webster cited letters the commissioners sent to some of the nonprofits three years ago saying they were going to stop funding after three years.

“We sent letters to them saying we have a $100,000 shortfall coming up (in the county jail budget),” Webster said. “It’s a serious amount of money. It was never about cutting programs; it was about setting priorities.”

Tuesday’s meeting comes a day after voters at the annual Wilton Town Meeting voted to adopt a resolution asking the county to restore funding for nonprofits. Voters in Farmington also passed a similar resolution in March.

“They should just go to the towns,” Webster said. “The problem is the towns (don’t have the support).”

He also criticized the wages earned by employees at the two agencies.

The most recent 990 tax form for Western Maine Community Action shows a salary of $84,692 for former Executive Director Steve Johndro and a salary of $90,101 for Director of Finance and Administration Judith Gerry.

The highest paid salaried employee at Western Maine Transportation is Buchanan, who earns less than $85,000.

“I’m not taxing people who live in modest homes in this county and adding to taxes so these folks can make higher wages,” Webster said. “I’m not doing it. I’m disappointed in the budget committee. We gave them a chance to come here, and they didn’t listen.”

Only District 3 Commissioner Clyde Barker said he supports the funding the budget committee allocated for the program grants. Commissioners must be in unanimous agreement in order to make changes to the budget post approval by the budget committee.

“I thought the budget worked really hard, and they dug into different things,” Barker said. “I can’t vote for anything different from what they proposed.”

He also made a statement he would like to see the county release $12,500 in funds that had been allocated in the current budget for Western Maine Community Action but not released after Brann and Webster expressed concern the money was going to salaries and not to work done by the agency.

“I think it’s time to release that money and give it to them,” Barker said. “I think it’s an asset to us, and if you do away with all your assets, what do you have?”

“Hopefully a more efficient organization,” Brann said.

“That money was put toward wages after they told us for years it was put to grants,” Webster said. “They’ve become a political operation. The bottom line is three years ago we told them the money would be phased out. They can go to the towns.”

“You’re a commissioner, and that’s part of the commissioners’ position — to take care of the district,” Barker said to Webster in a heated exchange. “Don’t you think you ought to do that?”

“I’m against both of you,” he added. “I’ve never seen such an unorganized district.”

Bill Crandall, a program manager for Western Maine Community Action, was not at the meeting but acknowledged in an interview later Tuesday the agency does use the money from the county to fund salaries.

“There’s never been anything hidden,” Crandall said. “We use (the money from the county) to support our staff. We receive a lot of funding for direct client dollars but not enough to support staff to implement the programs. That’s the purpose of the funding from the county.”

He said the agency brings in over $1 million in fuel assistance each year, but federal grant money doesn’t come in with funding that can be used to pay staff to implement the program.

“If we don’t have the support from the county and we can’t find it, we will have less people employed to implement these programs. So instead of $1 million or $1.2 million, it will be less and less,” he said. “We’ll be able to help less and less people as they cut the funding.”

Crandall also said he believes the agency has been transparent, and they’re willing to give commissioners whatever information they need. He said he doesn’t think it’s fair the county is withholding money that has been budgeted for Western Maine Community Action.

“Our goals are the same,” he said. “We want the best value for our tax dollar. Nobody wants a bad investment of the tax dollar. I think helping Granny Smith in Strong is an important thing to do. Charlie is worried about older folks being able to pay their taxes. One way they can is through the help we provide them with fuel assistance.”

Commissioners Tuesday also voted 2-1 in favor of a 2% cost of living increase for non-union employees and a 1% cost of living increase for elected officials.

In contrast, the budget committee last week approved a 3% cost of living increase for non-union employees.

Brann said because unanimous approval is needed from commissioners to make any changes, the cost of living increase for non-union employees will remain at 3%.

The budget will now head back to the committee for final approval due to one change made by commissioners to give an additional $1,000 to the Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The budget number has also changed slightly from the $6.74 million number approved by the committee due to a handful of clerical errors.

The additional $1,000 is to fund a salary increase for Executive Director Rosetta Thompson.

Brann said the commission is OK with funding the soil and water district but not other nonprofits because the agency helps towns take care of things like permits for culvert maintenance.

“It’s just really helping save money,” he said.

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