SKOWHEGAN — After a couple of hours of discussion on a 68-article Town Meeting warrant, voters passed a $13.6 million municipal budget, which includes the approval of two new positions at the Fire Department.

The annual meeting began at 10 a.m. at the Opera House, with around 60 community members in attendance. The total approved spending budget — $13,581,695 — reflects a nearly 8% increase to the previous fiscal year.

Big-ticket items on the 68-article warrant include $1,828,889 for general government; $1,798,599 for the Police Department; and $1,194,936 for the Fire Department, which responds to about 800 calls annually.

The increase in the budget is largely driven by three changes, which include a roughly $640,000 expense added to wage and benefits to cover five new positions, a $140,000 increase in payment to debt retirement and a $117,000 increase in the capital reserve fund.

Reflected in the Fire Department’s budget is the addition of two new positions, one for a firefighter and another for a deputy chief/building inspector. After some discussion, voters ultimately approved both positions, although some preferred the selectmen’s recommendation, which was just to fund the firefighter position, citing that “our taxes have had enough and we don’t need to add more to the payroll.”

Adding the firefighter position will allow the department to have three full-time firefighters (one captain and two firefighters) on shift 24/7, which provides increased coverage on the weekends.

Shawn Howard, the town’s fire chief, said that the deputy chief/building inspector position will be shared between the fire department and the Code Enforcement Office and would be an administrative position who would assist as a full-time inspector that would work help alleviate some of the code enforcement-side of operations.

“As the town’s growing and we’re having more and more projects, we have found that there’s a greater need for inspections of buildings in town, especially with the new construction,” Howard said. “This position would help take on that role, this would also alleviate developers, building owners, contractors.”

Currently, Howard said that most licensing needs to be sent to the state Fire Marshal’s office for their approval. Having this new position in Skowhegan would allow the town to do that work in-house, giving contractors and developers “somebody local to do site plan reviews and issue those licenses.”

“The idea here is to make town government more business-friendly, have somebody local that contractors can work with that can meet them on site and help move these projects forward quicker and with somebody local that you can sit down and talk to,” Howard said.

State law allows the fire department to do building inspections, and Howard added that they do conduct inspections, however they’re more reactive right now, meaning that most are conducted based on complaints. Having the new position will allow the department to be more proactive in these endeavors.

“Many, many fire departments do this. Many fire departments have code enforcement functions when it comes to building safety as part of the fire department, not the code enforcement office. What we’re looking to do is work together, have both agencies working together with that,” Howard said.

Billie Clark, who will soon be opening Unwined at 152 Water St., spoke in favor of both positions and said that as a new business owner in town, she sees a need for the building inspector position.

“We are opening the wine bar here in town and we are eight weeks out waiting for the State to come and do our inspection,” Clark said. “That’s before we can get permitted locally. We have everything we need right now to open, employees waiting, contractors waiting, and we’re waiting on this state level, so I can see where this new position would be very beneficial, not only to me but to any other new businesses in town.”

Town Manager Christine Almand previously said that two of the five positions proposed have already been put into place at Redington-Fairview General Hospital. However, the cost of the positions is offset by revenues received from the hospital, so there is no net increase.

The final position that was approved is for a custodian at the Community Center on Poulin Drive.

Voters at the meeting were also torn on the budget request from the Skowhegan Free Public Library, which asked for $195,000. Selectmen recommended $175,000, with Selectmen Charles Robbins saying that this $20,000 discrepancy was because the board did not have the library’s budget from the previous year when they were presented with the budget proposal.

“I think that’s why we recommended the amount that we awarded them last year at Town Meeting,” Robbins said.

During budget discussions for the previous fiscal year, there was a bit of debate with the funding request from the library. Initially, the 2020 request was for $235,000, but due to the pandemic, library officials were asked to revise their request, which was then brought down to $175,000 and was a heavily debated item at the 2020 Town Meeting.

“I believe last year, (the Skowhegan Free Public Library) was the only organization asked to decrease their amount and they did, I feel this year, they decreased last year, I don’t know why we would decrease them this year if they got the needed signatures and the voters signed that petition,” said Gail Pelotte, Skowhegan’s Town Clerk.

On Saturday, some of the same ideas from the previous year’s meeting were echoed, though voters ultimately decided to OK the $195,000 request.

Angie Herrick, who has worked at the library for about 12 years and currently serves as the acting director, spoke in favor of the $195,000 request.

“I’ve seen our library go from two floors with two and a half staff members to three and a half floors and four staff members,” Herrick said. “Our building and our staff account for 84% of our total budget expenditures.”

Herrick added that the library grew in size by 75% and the staff by 60% while the budget has increased by about 35%.

“That does not take into effect the increase in services, programs and resources our library has been offering,” Herrick said.

The $20,000 increase, she said, is merely “to take us out of the red,” Herrick said, because the library has been operating over budget and with minimum wage increases, inflation, upgrading and updating software and resources has been needed.

“Budgets are not stagnant and they should not be stagnant. I could throw a lot of information and facts and figures and anecdotes at you, but the bottom line is, if you’re sitting there thinking that $195,000 to operate the public library is too much, you’re probably not a library user, and that’s okay,” Herrick said. “I’ve never used hospice and I no longer have kids in the public school, but I know it’s important to give them adequate funding in order to make our community one that fits the needs of all of its residents. The library is essential and the money is essential.”

Other business items on Saturday include an increase to the debt retirement proposal, with 2021 being the first year that the town must make a payment on the public safety building bond. Voters can also expect this amount to increase as much as $592,000 next year, after which the amount is expected to decrease.

“We’ll see an additional increase next year, but it will decline every year after that,” Almand has previously said. “What we do with our bonds is a level principal payment so that each year, our payments go down.”

She added that at previous public hearings, town officials explained to voters that “2023 would be our highest payment on that bond.”

Most cuts to the budget were made at the 2020 Town Meeting because officials were unsure how to plan given the coronavirus pandemic; what has changed this year is the use of more surplus. Of the three proposals offered to voters on how to use that funding, voters ultimately decided to split the $1.4 million two ways: $700,000 to the Ballfield Compound Reserve Account and $700,000 to reduce the tax commitment.

Almand said it is too early to know what the property tax rate might be because the town awaits more information, such as projections on state revenue sharing.

The budget request from School Administrative District 54 is up about $238,000, and while the Somerset County budget is down, Almand said. Skowhegan’s local assessment is up by more than $109,000, reflecting a $347,000 increase to local taxes.

Voters also gave the OK for the town to sign an agreement to approve of the relocation of Memorial Field Complex from East Maple Street to the property between the Community Center and Skowhegan Area High School. This solidifies the agreement with MSAD 54, and the town will deed to them the Memorial Field property in exchange for funds to relocate the fields.

The secret ballot election will be held on Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Council Room of the Municipal Building.

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