Caribou councilors approve increases to city budget for police incentives, library

1 month ago

CARIBOU, Maine – After hearing numerous citizen comments, the Caribou City Council opted to give wage increases to library employees and add incentives to attract police officers in the 2024 municipal expense budget at a special meeting Monday.

The budget that department leaders initially proposed totaled $11.6 million compared to last year’s $11.1 million. The new budget totals $11.9 million, largely due to incentives that Police Chief Michael Gahagan and City Manager Penny Thompson proposed offering to the city’s police officers, as well as a new detective position.

Councilors unanimously approved all amendments to the city’s original expense budget, including those for the police department and library.

Caribou Police Department currently has 15 officers but is down three officers and has been searching for ways to become fully staffed again. 

Gahagan originally proposed a $1,942,309 budget, with $1,131,488 for officers’ regular pay and overtime and reserve officer pay. Since the police department is currently on year two of union contracts and cannot change those wage agreements, Gahagan and Thompson sought other ideas for attracting and retaining officers.

Thompson suggested to councilors that they give officers a $4,500 stipend for using their personal cell phones in police cruisers, increase equipment reserves to $10,000 to purchase custom-fit bulletproof vests for all officers and add $11,250 for new uniforms.

Over the years, officers have purchased different uniforms at various times, meaning that the colors don’t match exactly. Purchasing new uniforms for all officers can help them feel part of a team, Thompson said.

The new bulletproof vests would be “load bearing,” meaning that the officers are less likely to suffer back and hip injuries because of how their guns are placed in relation to the vests, Thompson said.

“We’ve been reserving money for load-bearing vests and we have a grant to pay for half [of the original $3,000 budget request],” Thompson said. “But inflation is up and technology for these vests have changed, bringing up the price.”

Thompson said she and Gahagan agree that hiring a full-time detective, which the police department currently does not have, could give current sergeants opportunities for advancement and help police cover serious crimes more regularly.

The council approved adding $75,348 to cover the detective’s annual salary, $29,004 for health insurance, $5,764 for social security and $9,945 for retirement benefits. That makes the police department’s increase from $1.9 million to $2 million.

Caribou Public Library also saw changes to its budget after 10 residents spoke in favor of increasing wages for all employees and promoting one from part time to full time.

Before the council’s vote, Library Director Peter Baldwin was the only full-time library employee. He had suggested promoting one employee to cover the library in his absence. Baldwin also directs the Nylander Museum.

CARIBOU, Maine — March 18, 2024 — Caribou Library Director Peter Baldwin (far right) listens to public comments during a special city council meeting alongside library supporters (left to right) Lou Willey, Heather Hale and Alex Hale of Caribou. (Melissa Lizotte | Aroostook Republican)

“Part-time employees who work 20 hours a week and have less than two years experience are paid between $13.80 and $14.80 per hour and don’t receive benefits,” said Lou Willey, a member of the library’s board of trustees. 

Because of those low wages, the library has seen several employees leave within the last few years. High turnover stifles the library’s goals of expanding technology support, starting a bookmobile and maintaining regular programs and services, said Brianna Carlson, a member of Friends of Caribou Public Library.

Brianna’s children Lukas, 11, and William, 13, spoke enthusiastically about the books and programs they’ve enjoyed at the library.

“We have reading clubs and it’s fun to read with other children,” William Carlson said. “We have a lot of opportunities to learn.”

Libraries are more than just places to check out books, said Caribou resident Heather Hale. They give parents and children a safe place to gather, and librarians go out of their way to learn about people and cater to their interests.

“These people develop relationships with their patrons. They’ll stop whatever they’re doing to engage with them,” Hale said. “They need to be seen as treasured parts of our community.”

The budget decreases the library’s overall wage expenses from the original $197,536 to $176,425 but still accounts for one employee’s promotion to full time and increased part time wages to at least $16 per hour.

“I commend the library people for coming out tonight and Peter [Baldwin] and the direction he has given [the library],” said Councilor John Morrill. “One challenge has been keeping people here and offering fair wages. We don’t want you to think that you’ve been forgotten.”

Councilors also approved the city’s capital improvement budget at $1.2 million, a decrease from $1.4 million in 2023. Projected revenues total $11.3 million, compared to $12.2 last year.

The next regular Caribou City Council meeting will be held Monday, March 25 at 6 p.m. at Caribou Municipal Building, 25 High St.