LIMESTONE, Maine — Residents at the annual town meeting dug their heels in on proposed budgets they said were too high, even threatening to vote for zero dollars for the school if the board did not agree to tighten its purse strings.
The meeting began Wednesday evening but had to be continued to Thursday evening because of the amount of discussion on each item that showed an increase in spending. Moderator Paul Durepo ended Wednesday’s meeting at 9 p.m.
It was clear at both sessions that residents were divided on how much the town should spend on certain departments, and whether some services were merely “wants” instead of necessities. Residents said that municipal and school-based taxes have increased over the years because of proposed budgets that are too high in the first place.
The Limestone Community School budget was the most controversial discussion, with most residents voting to send the $4,435,138 budget back to the school board for review. Last year’s budget was $3,699,035.
Several residents agreed to vote for zero dollars when the article came up concerning regular instruction, with a cost of $1.7 million more than $1.3 million last year. They told school board members to tighten what they saw as an inflated budget.
“This is a too extravagant budget for a small community,” Chuck Kelly said. “We don’t want to close the school; we just want you to go back and find a price that’s agreeable.”
When school board member Kathie Beaulieu asked Kelly and other residents what they meant by “extravagant,” no one offered specific cuts but asked the board to lower the overall price tag.
Beaulieu and several school board and staff members said they had already spent months combing through the budget and had proposed what they believed to be most affordable, given the rising prices of electricity, fuel and oil as well as increases in teacher salaries, per a union agreement, and in tuition needed to send high school students to Caribou and Fort Fairfield.
Debt service from an RSU 39 bond to build Caribou Community School makes the total budget appear higher than it is, Superintendent William Dobbins said. The state requires Limestone Community School to show the debt service on the budget because Limestone was still part of the Caribou school district (RSU 39) when they voted to build the new Caribou Community School, he said.
Without that debt service, the total budget is closer to $3 million, Dobbins said.
But that was not enough to convince most residents. After voters struck down the articles for regular and special education, Durepo ended the town meeting, since voters were intent on doing the same for the rest of the budget.
He said that a special meeting to discuss the school budget would occur in at least two weeks.
The longest discussion Wednesday was when Limestone Police Detective and Interim Chief Jim Butler proposed a $509,086 budget, an increase of $150,351 over last year’s $358,735. Limestone’s five-member selectboard recommended $413,866.
Butler is trying to rebuild the police department after the death of former Chief Stacey Mahan in late 2021. Officers have left for jobs that offer increased salaries and benefits in surrounding towns, Butler said. The department needs to hire a permanent chief and at least two full-time officers, he said.
His proposed budget would pay for 80 percent of medical expenses for an officer’s spouse and children as well as the officer. The current health insurance plan pays for 80 percent of an officer’s medical expenses. The selectboard’s proposal would pay a new chief a $68,400 salary and each officer $60,372.
Many of the hundreds of residents attending questioned whether Limestone could compete with the wages and benefits packages that larger cities like Presque Isle and Caribou offer.
The shortage has become so profound that the department only has reserve officers. Even the previous interim chief, Joey Smith, left his full-time duties due to burnout from working overtime, Butler said.
“We’re not asking to compete with Caribou, Presque Isle or Fort Fairfield,” Butler said. “But if we can offer better insurance, maybe we can start recruiting and retaining.”
Residents approved a budget of $469,101 that Butler suggested in hopes of offering higher wages and benefits but for a price that residents felt they could afford.
Adjusting proposed budgets became a common theme, as residents debated which services are most essential to the town.
For instance, the majority voted to increase the selectboard’s proposed fire department budget from $81,506 to $86,000 after Chief Jon Poitras recommended higher stipends for his all-volunteer crew because of increased gas and fuel costs.
But residents were more divided over services they saw as important but not essential, including the town’s recreation department. After several suggestions from the crowd, Albert made a motion to decrease the selectboard’s $92,050 recommendation to $62,000, which voters ultimately passed.
During Thursday’s meeting, Julie Weston suggested that instead of funding the rec department only through town taxes, Limestone should charge residents a fee to use the pool and other amenities.
“We have to think about our wants and needs. I personally consider the rec department more of a luxury,” Weston said. “The pool is expensive to maintain, so I think we should be charging people to use it.”
In other town meeting news, Durepo confirmed the results of Limestone’s annual election. Randy Brooker received 165 votes to become the town’s newest selectperson. He will replace outgoing Board Chairperson James Pelkey. Brooker’s opponent, Tadd Devoe, received 62 votes.
In the school board race, Amy Edgecomb and Amanda Smith received 156 and 119 votes, respectively. Beaulieu received 115 votes, losing her current seat. Write-in candidate Shelly Caldwell received one vote. Durepo said that a recount for the school board votes has been requested.
James Cote was reelected to the Limestone Water and Sewer District Board with 196 votes. Write-in candidates Danny Gahagan and Andy Caldwell received three and one vote, respectively.