Caribou councilors discuss proposed budgets as final vote gets closer

2 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine – With many cost sectors rising, Caribou Fire & Ambulance is projecting many increases in its 2024 budget.

On Monday, Caribou Fire & Ambulance Chief Brian Lajoie proposed to city councilors a $2,589,623 total budget, a 2.5 percent, or $67,732 decrease from the $2,459,120 spent last year.

If approved as is, the 2024 budget would include $1,380,324 for full-time employee salaries, including overtime and stand-by pay. The department spent $1,318,047 in 2023. 

Lajoie suggested allocating $36,000 for paid on-call firefighters when they respond to fires, and keeping $14,000 to cover times when on-call firefighters have to staff the fire station. Both budget lines would be $5,000 increases over last year.

“When all our full-time people are on a call, we need four people at the station at all times,” Lajoie said. “That [budget line] took a big hit last year. We were down three full-time people.”

The staff shortage also affected the department’s budget for uniforms, turnout gear and boots, Lajoie said.

Three full-time employees came on in June 2023 and all needed outfitted clothing. Lajoie proposed a $2,500 increase in the total clothing allowance, bringing that budget item to $21,900 for the whole year.

“We lost one employee in December, so we anticipate shopping for clothes for somebody else,” Lajoie said.

Lajoie also made the following budget proposals: $13,500 for electricity, a $3,000 increase; $29,000 for heating fuel, no increase; $30,000 for diesel fuel, a $10,000 decrease; $6,600 for building supplies, a $1,400 increase; $21,000 for building maintenance, a $1,000 increase; $25,000 for vehicle repair, a $9,000 increase; $8,000 for gasoline, a $1,500 increase; $25,000 for equipment maintenance, a $5,000 increase; and $30,000 for medical supplies, a $5,500 increase.

Councilors also heard from several other department officials who explained reasons behind budget increases.

Housing Director Lisa Plourde proposed a $176,804 total budget for 2024, compared with $130,974 spent last year, an increase of 23.8 percent, or $34,010.

The highest increases would come from staff wages and benefits. With a 2-percent cost-of-living adjustment, wages for Plourde and a part-time employee would rise from $63,895 to $86,071, a 33.5-percent increase of $21,641.

Plourde said that she will sign onto the city’s health insurance plan due to recent changes in her family’s current health insurance plan. That is why her department’s health insurance expenses will increase from $2,917 to $28,803.

But increased expenses will not affect the city long term, Plourde said.

“Housing and Section 8 are considered enterprise accounts. Any expenses are reimbursed 100 percent by the state,” Plourde said.

City Manager Penny Thompson proposed budgets of $341,077 for economic development and $265,729 for tax assessment and code enforcement.

Thompson oversees economic development, which includes funds for trail grooming, marketing, facade improvement grants, annual city events and blight removal. 

Thompson proposed increasing the facade improvement funds from $20,000 to $40,000 and creating a second category within that program. 

Currently, only businesses in the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District can apply, but Thompson wants to also include the RC-2 TIF District, which contains commercial businesses further from downtown.

“If the budget is funded, we could get working on that [new facade category] this year,” Thompson said.

The city is accepting facade grant applications from Downtown TIF District businesses until March 15, Thompson said.

The tax assessment and code enforcement budget includes $137,044 in employee wages for the deputy tax assessor and a future planner and code enforcement officer to replace Ken Murchison, who retired in May 2023. 

That would mark an increase of 5.9 percent from $95,661 for wages and an increase of 165 percent to $41,788 for health insurance, Thompson said.

Councilors voted unanimously to eliminate the contributions category from the city’s 2024 budget.

For several years, city councilors had approved donations to local charitable organizations. Last year, they allocated $3,048 to Aroostook County Action Program and $4,600 to Aroostook Agency on Aging.

This year, the city received requests to support Aroostook County on Healthy Families with $200, Camp Susan Curtis ($1,000), Maine Public Broadcasting ($100), Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots and Northern Maine Veterans Cemetery ($200 each), Halfway Home Pet Rescue and Homeless Services of Aroostook ($12,943 each).

Councilors agreed to let residents decide who they want to support instead of making the difficult choice of who to fund.

“I don’t want to sound heartless, but I think something like this should be a personal decision,” said Councilor Joan Theriault. “We, as a city, should not be deciding for people and taking it out of taxpayer money.”

The council will hold a budget workshop during their next meeting on Monday, March 11 at 6 p.m. They will hold a special council meeting Monday, March 18 at 6 p.m. to vote on the final city budget. Both meetings will be held at Caribou Municipal Building, 25 High St.