Houlton police chief speaks out against budget cuts

1 year ago

HOULTON, Maine — A jump in property taxes likely awaits residents in Houlton in the new year.

The Houlton Town Council unanimously approved a $12.3 million budget for 2023 during a special Jan. 3 meeting, lasting roughly 30 minutes. Municipal spending is up considerably for next year at $9,670,736 — an increase of $736,780 (8.25 percent). 

“This was a tough budget year for sure,” Houlton Town Manager Marian Anderson said. “We feel this budget meets the needs of the town. Obviously, things like utilities and fuel costs have all gone up, which drove up our budget.”

Houlton had managed to maintain a tax rate of 22.25 mills for several years before it increased to its current rate of 22.6 in 2021. At that rate, a home valued at $100,000 saw a property tax bill of $2,260 before any reductions from the Homestead Exemptions.

Based on the current projections for the Aroostook County tax and the RSU 29 school budget, Houlton residents could see as much as a two mill increase in the property tax rate — which translates to an increase of $200 on that same $100,000 home.

But the rate for 2023 will not be set until August or September, according to Terry Duff, tax assessor for the town of Houlton. Changes in the town’s valuation of property are also in the works this year, brought on by the massive jump in real estate sales, she said.

Anderson said the town has five union contracts that are being negotiated, with anticipated increases in wages included in those deals.

“Some of our costs are fixed and we have no control over those, so it is very challenging (putting together a budget),” Anderson said. “We appreciate the efforts of the Board of Budget Review and the town council.”

Only the police account drew any amount of discussion from the council. As presented, the police budget of $1,350,788 featured a decrease of $62,980 for 2023. That reduction, which equates to the elimination of 1.4 positions on the force, did not sit well with Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca. 

“Considering you have appointed me and have faith in my ability to lead our police department, I would be remiss if I did not outline the impact this reduction will have on police services,” the chief said. “We are shorthanded with five open positions and although challenging, we provide adequate police protection.”

Filling vacancies on the police force has been a challenge for the HPD for at least the last year. At one point, the force was operating at half capacity, forcing Chief DeLuca to get creative in its search for new officers.

DeLuca asked the council to restore the police budget to its original funding level of $1,413,768, but his wishes were not granted.

Council Chairman Chris Robinson noted that the council was not reducing the number of police positions and if the department were to ever reach a point where it could be fully staffed, the board would be willing to revisit the funding for the department.

“Speaking for myself, I would want us to reopen those discussions,” he said.

Anderson said that she recommended the reduction in the police budget because the force has not been fully staffed for the last eight years.

“The practice has been to fund all of those (unfilled) positions,” she said. “Unfortunately, with our challenges this year, we were looking for departments we could reduce.”

Another area the town reduced its capital reserve account, which was dropped to zero for 2023. The town manager had originally sought $261,350 for this account, which is used for any long-range purchases department heads were seeking.