Rising energy costs leave few options for reducing Caribou city budget

2 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Despite reductions from department officials, the increased costs for heating fuel, gas, electricity and related expenses are expected to drive up Caribou’s operational expenses in 2022.

Last week, many Caribou councilors expressed concerns over the current expense and capital budgets, which, if left alone, could result in an 11 percent increase in the city’s tax rate. They then instructed City Manager Penny Thompson and department officials to find as many potential savings as possible amid the harsh economic climate.

Now the expense budget sits at $10.4 million, an 8.1 percent increase over the 2021 budget of $9.3 million. This year’s proposed capital budget is $1.9 million compared to $2.1 million proposed during last week’s special budget meeting.

The Caribou Police Department is among the departments that have made the biggest reductions in hopes of helping the city decrease its total costs. 

Allocations for police officer body cameras have decreased from $17,000 to $8,500. That later amount will allow the police department to purchase five new cameras this year for five officers and the same number the following year. The department has also reduced firearms expenses from $15,000 to $12,000.

Chief Michael Gahagan said he decided to eliminate a $3,000 line item for bulletproof vests since the current vests are still fully functional. Those changes have reduced his department’s capital budget from $84,900 to $66,250.

“Capital expenses are based on three or four years out, not just the current year, so we can spread some purchases out over several years,” Gahagan said. “Hopefully as the economy gets better, we can look at making more purchases next year.”

But there are fewer options for the city’s expense budget, which exclusively covers 2022, due to rising costs to heat and power city buildings and vehicles.

The Public Works budget, for instance, accounts for an increase in diesel fuel from $69,905 in 2021 to $161,563 in 2022. Gas and oil filters will increase from $7,122 in 2021 to $11,054 in 2022. That leaves a total department expense budget of $2.4 million, compared with $2 million last year.

Public Works Director David Ouellette based those figures on estimated diesel costs of $4.75 per gallon and gas/oil costs of $3.70 per gallon. But he said that those figures are hard to predict amid the changing weekly prices and will likely continue to rise.

On Tuesday, diesel fuel was listed in Maine at $5.29 average, and gas at $4.20, according to gasprices.aaa.com.

“We have to go with our closest guesses [for fuel costs],” Ouellette said. 

Councilors approved the city’s expense budget 5 to 2, with Doug Morrell and Mark Goughan voting no. The capital budget passed 6 to 1, with Goughan casting the single no vote.

Thompson said that the city cannot calculate the total mill rate until they know the RSU 39 school district and the county’s tax contributions in June. The city has until June 30 to approve the final budget for 2022.

Budget documents approved or proposed thus far can be viewed on the city’s website.

The next regular Caribou City Council meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, April 11, in the council chambers of the Caribou Municipal Building, located at 25 High St.