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Council OK’s $10.7 million municipal budget, eliminates funding for Lifeflight

HOULTON, Maine — With little input from local residents, town councilors Wednesday night approved a $10.7 million municipal budget for 2018.

A small group of about 15 people attended the public hearing on the budget. The bulk of those people, however, were town employees. No residents commented on the spending plan during the public hearing.

“We are happy overall with the budget,” chairman Bill McCluskey said. “All of our departments are pretty streamlined. We saved a little in some places, but we had some increases with the COLA (cost of living adjustment) and the minimum wage increase. Overall, our budget has been pretty steady.”

He added that things could be different next year.

“Looking to the future, I think we have some hard choices to make,” McCluskey said. “But I am confident the right decisions will be made.”

Municipal spending went up $242,656 from last year. Much of that increase was due to wage increases and a rise in insurance premiums.

The current 2017 Houlton tax rate is $22.25 per $1,000 of property value on a total 2017 budget of $10,690,001. The proposed 2018 budget is $10,733,761 and should not have a significant impact on the tax rate.

Only one item generated much discussion Wednesday. A $1,000 request from Lifeflight of Maine, a nonprofit service jointly operated by Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems and Central Maine Healthcare Corporation that provides helicopter transportation for patients from Aroostook County hospitals to larger health care facilities.

The board originally agreed to fund the request when it first reviewed the budget on Dec. 18.

However, councilor Sue Tortello argued the town should not give any money to the group, stating it was funded

“I was against funding Lifeflight when we met before and I am still opposed to it,” Tortello said. “We lack a consistent and fair way of evaluating how we fund outside services.”

The councilor stated she examined the 2016 annual report from Lifeflight of Maine and learned Houlton Regional Hospital donated between $50,000-$75,000 to the company.

“In 2016, Lifeflight of Maine had a total budget that was bigger than the town budget at $12,552,334 in expenses,” she said. “They also had income that was $416,000 over what they spent.”

She noted 1.7 percent of the company’s income comes from donations from municipalities. Of the 459 towns in Maine, she said, 166 of those made donations, with 21 of those communities based in Aroostook County.

“None of the towns that have hospitals (Houlton, Presque Isle, Caribou, Fort Kent) are individual donors,” Tortello said. “I think there is a reason for that. I believe the hospital supports Lifeflight because it is part of their mission. I fail to see how it is a direct mission of the town of Houlton.”

Tortello added she felt the service Lifeflight provides was superior and admitted that $1,000 was not a large sum of money to ask for, but stated she felt the group was already more than adequately funded.

Councilor Raymond Jay strongly disagreed.

“I don’t think $1,000 is enough,” Jay said. “If it were me, I would increase it to $2,000-$3,000. Tell the pilots or nurses that $1,000 is not worth it. I think anyone who has ever had to use that service would tell you, that service is worth every penny. For me, Lifeflight is a necessity.”

Tortello managed to sway enough of her fellow councilors so that the funds were slashed, reducing the overall budget by $1,000. No individuals from Lifeflight spoke at either the Dec. 18 meeting or Wednesday night’s gathering.

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