With the largest single increase to Kennebec County taxes proposed in at least two decades, Winthrop resident Joe Pietroski brought his concerns about spending to Tuesday’s county budget public hearing.

Why, Pietroski wanted to know, do residents of county municipalities with police departments have to pay for additional county deputies to patrol when they are funding their own law enforcement? And why are county officials seeking to raise taxes to pay for Kennebec County jail expenses when the state Legislature has not said it won’t pay a portion of the cost of running county jails across the state?

Law enforcement and jail spending make up the bulk of the nearly $12 million county officials are seeking in their proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. County law enforcement and the county jail represent more than 75% of that spending.

This year, two factors are driving increases to that part of the budget.

Earlier this year, the Maine State Police, which had shared patrol duties in Kennebec County, announced it was scaling back its patrols, leaving additional county territory for the Sheriff’s Office to cover.

Also earlier this year, because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus, the Maine State Legislature ended its session early before it could vote on supplemental state funding for county jails.

At Tuesday’s public hearing, County Administrator Robert Devlin said last year, for the first time anyone can recall, the Kennebec County jail operated in the red, a situation that has been threatening for several years.

The cause lies in the dissolution of the state Board of Corrections, which for several years oversaw the running of jails across the state. When  it was disbanded in 2015, the county assessment for jail funding remained locked where it had been when the board had been created in 2008, with a state-imposed cap on spending increases set at 4%

Devlin said in the last several years, county officials have been able to keep jail spending increases at about 3%.

“Last year, funding didn’t keep up with growing expenses,” he said.

County officials were expecting at least $1.5 million in state funding to help pay the costs of running the jail. Under a new proposed formula that state lawmakers were expected to consider, Kennebec County could have received $2.2 million, but that didn’t happen.

While the Legislature may reconvene later this year and take up what it dropped, Devlin said county officials can’t wait to see whether or when that will happen. Under state law, counties are required to pass their budgets and get assessments to their municipalities by July 15.

“In the global world of the Legislature, the Kennebec County budget is not going to be a driving issue,” Devlin said. “When they come back, revenues will be down. There’s no hope or plan that they will come in and give us more money. If they do, and it covers what we have to increase to pay for the jail, we’ll give it back. But I don’t have any hope or faith that the Legislature is going to come back and rescue us.”

To address the change in Maine State Police patrols, Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason is proposing to add two patrol deputies to his roster in addition to the deputy that was already expected to be added this year. To lessen the budget impact, two of the deputies would be slated to start in January, half-way through the budget year.

“Is there any data or statistical evidence that we have so much crime that we can’t afford to continue with the people we have?” Pietroski, a member of the Winthrop School board and a past candidate for county commissioner, said. “You are a great sheriff and you do a great a job, but we can’t afford it. We can’t pay for it.”

Mason acknowledged the request comes at a bad time.

“If something bad happens, I would rather be darned for having more people than darned for not having them,” he said.

Mason said it’s possible for communities to have contract deputies patrol at their own expense.

“Then they should get a contract deputy,” Pietroski said.

Devlin said that option has been raised in the past to Kennebec County towns but to dated none have taken advantage of it, but those with large summer populations have paid for extra coverage in the summer.

“It’s the age-old rub,” Devlin said. “Towns with their own departments pay twice for law enforcement, but they are also heavy users of the jail. There’s a balancing act there. It doesn’t make anyone happy.”

Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the Winthrop Town Council and a member of the county’s Budget Committee, read a resolution that the Winthrop council approved at its June 1 meeting. The document noted that town officials had worked to keep spending increases at 1.92% and the proposed Kennebec County budget would result in an increase to town residents of 11.04%.

“Therefore be it resolved the Winthrop Town Council expresses serious concerns about the proposed Kennebec County budget, opposes this significant increase in taxes and encourages the Kennebec County Commissioners to utilize administrative and creative solutions to minimize any county tax increase.”

Fuller had earlier supported the proposed budget.

Tuesday’s public hearing was the first of two scheduled for this week. By law, one must be held in the northern part of the county and one in the southern part of the county.

While Tuesday’s hearing was conducted using Zoom, Devlin was sitting in Waterville.

Thursday’s meeting, which is scheduled for 5 p.m., will be hosted in Augusta.

Following a public hearing, the county’s budget committee is expected to vote on the spending plan. From there, it goes to Kennebec County commissioners for a final vote.

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