Washington County Commission Chair Chris Gardner explains that the county's drug‑related crimes are one of the "biggest drivers" of the almost 8% increase in the Washington County fiscal year 2018 budget. The county commissioners approved the budget at their November meeting. "It's all to do with the ever-growing drug problem in Washington County," he says. "In the last year we've had two homicides that are very likely drug related. It should alarm us."
"We put it to the budget committee to add three officers [to the sheriff's department], which we felt would give much better protection to the county. It would have been a significant increase to the budget," Gardner adds. "We gave the budget committee scenarios of both, three additional officers or none. They compromised and added one."
The budget will increase by $450,000 from the 2017 amount of $5.77 million to $6.223 million in 2018. The sheriff's department wages amount will increase from almost $600,000 to $730,000 for the additional officer and union negotiated increases for other staff. Gardner explains that the wage increases are critical to retaining and recruiting law enforcement personnel in a hiring climate that is seeing a decline in the law enforcement career path and where hiring competition and bonuses are adding challenges to counties and municipalities with less wealth than others. He notes that as municipalities struggle to maintain police departments, the burden on the sheriff's department increases. "One of the most basic government duties is public safety. We've made it a pledge, if a citizen calls, if the state police or the local police can't go, then the sheriff's department will."
In addition to smaller line item adjustments, the two other significant increases in the department are a $79,000 increase in the motor vehicles reserve account and a $36,000 increase in the motor vehicle equipment reserve account. County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald says that while the former sheriff had a rotation schedule to replace vehicles, the budget committee had reduced the budget in that area, with the result that vehicle rotation and replacement were reduced. "We will be replacing five vehicles in 2018." She adds, "Next year we hope we'll get back on the rotational replacement track."
Smaller increases are found in a number of places, including the jail, with an increase of $61,000, and the building maintenance line, with a jump of $80,000. Fitzgerald states, "For years the buildings have not received tender loving care." Last year her $18,000 budgeted amount swelled to an actual amount spent of $90,000. "Last year we used reserve funds to fix the belfry." On the long list of repairs needed are the roof to the 1960 addition, the slate roofs, the sheriff's department building's cupola and air conditioning in the probate court, which had its windows covered up when the new addition was built.
Fitzgerald points out that the jail employs almost half of all county workers. The budget is higher because of union-negotiated raises, but there are other factors including the revamped training requirements of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. She notes that the 42‑bed jail recently had 52 inmates, some of whom require specialized healthcare. "If we have an inmate who requires medicine, we are required to buy it." She adds, "One person could wipe out your entire budget line."
The county budget increased by 5.8% in 2017 and 1.5% in 2016. The 7.8% increase in the 2018 budget is a jump that Fitzgerald acknowledges is difficult. "I appreciate what the budget committee does. It's a hard job. But on the other side of the coin are the county departments. Almost to the man and woman they are so tight with their budgets. They recycle and reuse like mad."
She adds, "The committee saw the incredible drug problem we have. The sheriff wanted three [deputies]; the committee said no. So they compromised on one. It wasn't a unanimous vote. I understand where they [both sides] were coming from."
Gardner says of the drug‑related crimes, "There is no easy soundbite. It's an issue that runs so much deeper. There are certain things worth fighting for, and this is one of them."