AUGUSTA — The Kennebec County Budget Committee has endorsed the county’s proposed $17.4 million spending plan, opting not to tap surplus funds out of concern for the county jail’s budget.

The impact on taxpayers is expected to be increases to county taxes that range from 1.93% to 2.17% in communities across Kennebec County. But because the state valuation for all the communities, except the unincorporated territory of Unity Township has increased, the effect of that increase is expected to be lessened.

When the county’s budget committee met last Wednesday to complete its review of the budget proposal and approve the key policy decision in front of them, the committee considered whether to use the undesignated fund balance — county funds that have not been obligated for a specific purpose — to lessen what would be raised through property tax.

But with no funds identified to replenish the account, which some consider a sort of savings account, tapping that as revenue for the spending plan that goes into effect July 1 could leave county officials short of cash in the event of an emergency or unexpected event.

The decision to not use surplus funds stems in part from staffing conditions at the jail and contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police that are now underway.

“I would rather have that in my back pocket because this (budget) will be done before that contract is settled,” County Administrator Scott Ferguson said. “If I have to use it, the commissioners can make an appropriation in to the budget as long as revenue and expense equal, to have something to come up under it.”

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At the same time, the proposed spending plan presented to the budget committee included cuts in spending requests, including overtime at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility and freezing eight of the 15 now-vacant positions on the staff of 52 corrections officers.

While vacancies continue at the jail, that does not represent savings in unspent salaries because the money is used to pay overtime for corrections officers required to work extra shifts, according to the county administrator.

Under current conditions at the jail, corrections officers work 16-hour shifts, and can be required to return to work after five or six hours to work another shift.

“If you are doing that twice to a person on top of 40 hours, the burnout is extreme,” Capt. Bryan Slaney said.

Among the county’s concerns are the cost of energy, increasing cost of labor and need to pay overtime for deputies from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office as they cover shifts for deputies who are on National Guard deployments or who might be on medical leave.

“Overall, we have a pretty responsible budget,” said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the budget committee and chairwoman of the Winthrop Town Council. “We need to figure out where we fall if we take surplus out at all.”

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While the county collects fees through several departments, most notably the register of deeds, the bulk comes from property taxes assessed on county properties. Although the process of establishing the budget is straightforward, how the costs are allocated to county taxpayers is less so.

Eric Lind, who represents Ward 4 on the Augusta City Council, said it has been difficult for him to explain why the city of Augusta pays Kennebec County when it has its own Police Department and to explain the formula that determines Augusta’s share.

“I’m looking at the bottom line,” said Lind, who was pressing to reduce that number by using the fund balance. “Last year, it was $1.86 million. This year, the bill is $2 million.”

Cynthia Ferguson, Kennebec County’s finance director, said that $2 million is not a bill for the city of Augusta to pay, and should not be reflected as a line item in the city’s budget, unless the revenue is also included. The money is raised through collecting property tax and passed through the county.

“You’re including a higher number for county taxes, but your valuation went up by a large amount so your tax base is wider to spread it on,” she said. “Any individual homeowner in your municipality will only see that increase in the tax bill of (2.1%).”

“We’re simply collecting the money from the taxpayers and passing it through to the county,” said Anthony Wilson, the outgoing Belgrade town manager and a budget committee member.

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Wilson said given the size of the spending plan, having only about $1.5 million in the undesignated fund balance is not healthy enough. And given it would not be replenished from the general fund, based on projections, Wilson said he did not support using any of those funds in the proposed spending plan.

Scott Ferguson said the average increase of 2% is not too bad, given adjustments made to the budget and positions that have been added because they were needed.

“From my perspective, I just want to get through this budget cycle, regroup this summer and start to look ahead to the capital projects,” the county administrator said.

Budget committee members opted not to tap any fund balance, and to add almost $13,000 to the Extension Service, Tourism and the Soil and Water Conservation Service accounts.

In separate action, the budget committee also approved the proposed Unity Township spending plan at $21,500.

By law, two public hearings must be held on the proposed budget, one in the northern part of the county and one in the southern part.

A hearing in downtown Waterville has been scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 10, at the Chace Community Forum at the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons at 150 Main St.

The second hearing is set for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11, at the first floor conference room at Hill House at 125 State St. in Augusta.

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