From left to right, Piscataquis County Commissioners Andrew Torbett, James White and Wayne Erkkinen are pictured during a meeting in May 2022. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Next year’s Piscataquis County budget is likely to grow nearly 10 percent, but county officials say there still isn’t enough money for new positions that would alleviate stress for certain departments and tackle ongoing issues.

Piscataquis County’s 2023 budget and 2023-24 unorganized territory budget are set to increase by 9.93 percent and 6.68 percent, respectively, according to proposals shared during a county commissioners public hearing Monday night.

One of the poorest and least populated counties in Maine, Piscataquis is preparing for rising operational costs, such as fuel oil and IT upgrades, and the need to keep salaries and benefits competitive. Halting hires for new positions illustrates how challenging it is for poor, rural counties to see real growth and positive change when costs are surging.

It will cost $5,980,906 to run county operations next year, or $540,452 more than the current budget year, County Manager Michael Williams said. Revenues are up $38,692, he said.

The budget committee began its process with a $6,330,000 budget. Members removed requests for several positions: a full-time employee at the Piscataquis County Emergency Management Agency and a part-time patrol officer, Williams said. The promotion of a part-time maintenance position to full-time was also denied, but the county would still hire a part-time person.

The county’s Budget Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by commissioners and represent various municipalities, began reviewing the budgets Oct. 6 and wrapped up Nov. 3 after meeting four times. During Monday’s hearing, which lasted just under an hour, the Peaks Building was packed with department heads and residents.

Commissioners, who fielded questions from the public, have the authority to adjust the budget and are expected to vote on it in December.

Williams attributed the county budget’s rise to a number of factors, including a pay-scale adjustment for Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department employees; a nearly 4 percent increase in the patrol division’s budget and 7.45 percent increase in the telecommunication division’s budget; a $6,000 rise in workers compensation; $6,500 for IT support upgrades; and $15,000 for accrued benefits owed to people who leave the county.

Most of the increase in the telecommunications division, which handles dispatch, is because of benefit changes for new personnel versus those who left, Williams said. His memo also highlights the county’s non-union pay scale was adjusted from $12.75 to $13.80 per hour to account for the minimum wage change.

Williams said the county has implemented a hiring freeze for newly created positions, but if a longtime position opens up, the county would still work to fill that role.

Commissioner Andrew Torbett said open positions that were in the previous budget would still remain open.

The unorganized territory budget was set at $2,205,399, which is up $138,806 because of road maintenance in the summer and winter. The territories also saw costs rise for trash, both tipping fees and hauling, Williams said.

In response to a question from Dover-Foxcroft resident Eric Boothroyd, Williams said American Rescue Plan Act funds and expenditures are in a separate account because of the special qualifications to spend it. He didn’t have an account amount available during the meeting, but said the majority of the funds will go toward the project to upgrade radio communications for emergency personnel.

Greenville Town Manager Michael Roy recommended that commissioners look at the towns who pay the highest percentage of taxes when appointing members to the Budget Advisory Committee. The committee’s nine members represent Abbot, Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford, Greenville, Milo, Sebec and the unorganized territories.

Commissioners are scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. Thursday for a budget discussion. Several other budget-related and regular meetings are scheduled next month.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the Piscataquis County towns represented by the Budget Advisory Committee. There is a member who represents Greenville on the committee. It also misstated the year of the unorganized territory budget. It is the budget for 2023-24.