AUGUSTA – As the Kennebec County budget committee completed its first review of the county’s proposed $14.3 million spending plan, its members are wondering how the latest federal stimulus package may affect that.

The short answer is that no one knows yet.

Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said Thursday that guidance about how the $23 million the county is expecting may be used hasn’t been issued yet, but is expected by mid-May. The budget committee is expected to meet again May 12.

On Wednesday, the county budget committee, made up of municipal officials from cities and towns across the county, reviewed the spending plan for the first time. As proposed, it’s 5.12% — or nearly $700,000 — higher than the current year’s spending, which is driving a nearly 5.7% increase in tax revenues needed to pay for that spending.

The spending plan includes funding for two deputies in the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office that were hired midway through the budget year, following approval by the budget committee a year ago, as well as the cost of an additional half-time victim witness advocate in the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office and a staff assistant to the county’s Human Resource Division.

To pay for the spending, county officials will tap $1.6 million in revenues, which includes an estimated $1 million from Registry of Deeds revenues as well as $150,000 from undesignated surplus. The remaining $12.6 million is expected to come from Kennebec County property taxpayers through their county assessments.

Those assessments are determined by property valuations in each municipality. In a memo to the committee, Devlin noted that the 2021 state valuation shows that Augusta’s valuation has increased by $90 million, Windsor’s increased by $39 million, Belgrade’s increased by $59 million. At the same time, he noted, Winthrop’s decreased by $7.35 million.

Augusta’s proposed share of the county budget is nearly $1.9 million, a 6.3% increase from the current year.

Eric Lind, an Augusta city councilor and budget committee member, said that increase was a pretty heavy hit for the city.

“I have to ask about revenue and the unassigned surplus,” he said. “You stuck with $150,00o. Can we lean on that maybe a little more this year?”

Lind noted that Chelsea’s increase is 10.8%, Windsor’s is 14.2% and Sidney’s is 8.1%.

“We’re trying to hold the line at 0% in Augusta because of the effect of COVID on our residents, and this is a chunk of change, this $110,000 increase in Augusta,” he said.

Devlin said to make any kind of significant impact on individual assessments would require a significant increase in the use of the undesignated surplus.

“That starts to dig a hole, and you start spending your bank account in a sense,” he said. “That slowly digs a hole that eventually has to be refilled. We can’t sustain that.

“So if we do it this year to lower taxes, next year we have to raise taxes,” Devlin added. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

Lind asked whether the anticipated federal funds could be used for that.

The American Rescue Act has targeted funds for cities, towns and counties, but Devlin said in his experience in working with federal grants, that money is not allowed to fill holes in the budget; generally they are allowed to be used on other projects.

The county has spent money on protective equipment and cleaning at the jail, and Devlin said he hoped that could be recouped in the $23 million the county is expected to receive.

Devlin said he wants to have a discussion with the budget committee on how that money should best be spent, including on housing, transportation, sewer and water.

“This was really designed for counties out west, which provide municipal services,” he said.

In other parts of the United States, county governments have greater responsibilities, including public health, highways, elections and planning than counties in New England do.

Devlin said the county would have two years to spend the money.

As for using the county’s surplus, Devlin said there are no rules about how it can be used; it’s expected to be about $2 million.

Timothy McDonald, a Monmouth selectman who serves on the budget committee, said he’d favor tapping an additional $200,000 from surplus.

“Something occurred to me,” he said. “Many towns are having difficulty with aging sewers right now.

“They can’t get revenues without raising sewer fees drastically to pay for them,” McDonald added. “I know Monmouth’s sewer infrastructure is at least 70 years old, the youngest part of it, and it’s starting to fail.”

McDonald noted that Monmouth is also facing an expected sharp increase in its school assessment from Regional School Unit 2.

“It’s been a perfect storm in Monmouth. We’re looking at a $500,000 increase in our local share, and that’s seriously harming what we can do as far as roads and infrastructure and other things in town,” McDonald said. “It’s going to make it very difficult if that budget passes for the schools to justify a lot of things. The increase in our town budget was actually pretty modest this year.”

Devlin said he’ll run calculations on the impacts on assessments by using more from surplus and send out a draft before the next meeting.

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