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Council looks at options for 2021 budget

CARIBOU, Maine — Difficult budget decisions are on the horizon for members of the Caribou City Council.

The board received options for the 2021 budget, particularly in terms of capital expenses items such as major maintenance and facility repairs, during a Feb. 8 council meeting. And the news was not very good.

Even if the city were to take $853,772 from its reserve funds for several proposed capital expense items, the board would still need to spend another $871,259, which is about $320,141 more than last year, to balance the budget.

Caribou City Manager Dennis Marker highlighted three points in the current budget and asked councilors if they wanted him to continue in the direction he has been going.

The first point was general operating expenses, with the draft budget showing $9,278,104, which is about $45,000 less than last year’s budget.

Capital expenses are estimated at $1,725,031, with $853,772 of that being taken out of reserves to cover major maintenance and new facility costs. These expenses include $246,570 for debt service; $443,900 for facility repairs (with $270,830 coming from reserves); $288,000 reserved for future major facility expenses; $331,486 for new facilities, primarily Teague Park (with $328,486 coming from reserves); $386,275 for equipment replacement (with $236,257 from reserves); $18,800 for new equipment (with $18,200 from reserves); $232,000 toward future capital reserves; and $11,000 for new equipment or programs. 

“So out of the $1.7 million we’re currently showing using $853,772 from reserves,” Marker said. “So you take that $1.7 million and subtract out the reserve money we’re going to use, and that means we are identifying the need for $871,000 of essentially new capital dollars in the budget.”

He said the city has identified roughly $300,000 of new reserve funds, so this money would be put into the reserve while the $853,772 is taken out, resulting in a bottom line difference of negative $554,772.

Councilor Doug Morrell said he has no intentions of passing a budget that would raise taxes for the citizens, stating other avenues would need to be explored.

“Putting another burden on them (taxpayers) is throwing money down a black hole in my opinion,” he said. “The easy part is spending it. The easy part is raising taxes. The hard part is when you get a majority that says ‘we’re not going to do that.’ The hard part is ‘how are we going to stop it?’”

Councilor Lou Willey asked Morrell exactly how he would propose funding all of the items outlined in the draft budget.

“What I hear is people are tired of potholes and losing tires in the road,” Willey said. “They’re tired of not having things that other communities around us have. This budget, I believe, is thoughtful. So unless you have a really interesting way of finding a way to fund this, I don’t see any other way than to maybe put a mill back in so we can cover this, because we need to keep our city current. We can’t get new people in if our city is falling apart, and I’m not saying we need to raise a mill — I’m just throwing that out there.”

Morrell said he would not vote for any raises, and that he’s been around the council and city long enough to know that a crisis arises every year.

“Every year we need to do this or do that to grow the community, widen the roads, more police to direct new people coming in, and it never happens,” he said. “How about a crisis for the people that are paying the bills? I respect what you’re telling me, that some of your friends are telling you that, but respect what I’m saying — I have equally as many telling me something completely different. I guess it depends on what corner you’re coming from.”

Willey asked if it’s possible to meet in the middle.

“I’m not crazy enough to realize we can meet everybody’s needs, but we need to come closer than we’ve been,” she said.

Morrell said that if she’s asking about the specifics, he’ll take a week off his job and dig into it, but that it’s the city manager’s job to do this work.

“In years past I’ve been chastised about, the dirty word, ‘micromanaging,’ so that’s what we pay [Marker] the money for,” he said.

Marker said he’s primarily looking for a general direction from the council, adding that he has spoken with councilor Mark Goughan, chairman of the capital budget committee, and that he would like to set up a meeting to go through the capital expenses with a fine tooth comb and determine how to handle the budget. 

Mayor Jody Smith suggested getting a capital budget committee meeting set up soon, ideally prior to the next regularly scheduled city council meeting, so they can present a recommendation. 

Councilor Joan Theriault said she did not feel it was good management on the city’s part to continually “kick the can down the road,” when it comes to repairs and maintenance. 

“I think I was the only one who didn’t agree last year that we should have cut the taxes by a mill,” she said. “I thought it was too aggressive, and I think we’re going to pay for it now. I think we’re probably going to have to take that mill rate back that we cut last year in order to take care of some of these things.”

Last year, the city lowered the tax rate by one mill, which resulted in a $408,850 shortfall in revenue. The council voted by majority to hedge reserve account money against this shortfall in order to lower taxes. 

Morrell reiterated that this is not the first time the city has faced this situation.

“Here we sit, and now it’s a crisis,” he said. “Now all of a sudden we’ve got to sell our children to meet this budget. No, I disagree.”

He said the councilors need to put their heads together and come up with a plan, and that the buildings do need maintenance and the taxpayer’s assets should be taken care of.

“In the real world a business needs to make sure the roof is dry, the heater works, the toilets work and there’s paper on the rolls prior to handing out raises,” he said.

Smith asked Marker to reach out to Goughan, who was absent and excused from the Feb. 8 meeting, and see if a capital budget committee meeting could be set up prior to council’s next regular meeting on Feb. 22.

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