LIMESTONE, Maine — Limestone residents have pushed back their town’s annual meeting two weeks because they suspect many budget figures are inaccurate.
On Wednesday, 90 registered voters gathered at Limestone Community School’s auditorium to vote on proposed town and school budgets, but the vote stalled after the first article. Many residents accused officials of providing inaccurate or misleading numbers and demanded they review the budget again.
Frustration over the town’s fiscal year budget is nothing new in Limestone. Last year, it took two nights to approve the town budget. Voters sent the school budget back, demanding that the school committee lower the proposed $4,435,138 total. Residents approved a slightly smaller school budget of $4,419,138 one month later.
The stakes are especially high this year. Last week, Elliot projected that the town’s mill rate could increase by six mills, largely due to increased school expenses. The current rate is 28 mills.
This year, the budget conversation stalled at the first budget warrant article, which proposed a $372,327 total cost for administration. That category includes wages, salaries and benefits for two full-time town clerks and the town manager.
The town’s budget warrant, as printed one week prior, stated that voters approved $284,975 for administration last year. But a notice provided by interim Town Manager Walt Elliot in the budget book stated that $469,101 was the correct figure.
That would make the town’s administrative cost proposal a decrease over last year, Elliot said.
Limestone resident Melissa Devoe pointed out that $469,101 was the amount that voters allocated for the now-defunct Limestone Police Department. After recalculating his figures, Elliot confirmed that $284,975 is actually the correct figure passed at last year’s town meeting.
Devoe moved that the town allocate $284,975 once again for administration. Select Board member Jesse Philbrick seconded. The motion failed when Select Board member Chris Durepo explained that rising employee health insurance costs prompted the proposed increase.
To attract more employees, the town has decided to cover 100 percent of a single employee’s health expenses instead of 20 percent. That makes the annual insurance cost for a single employee $14,307, Durepo said.
The town also wants to raise employee wages to try to compete with surrounding municipalities, who are also dealing with shortages.
Limestone’s Public Works Department has been particularly hit hard this year. Since last fall, interim foreman Spencer Keiser stepped up as full-time foreman and hired two full-time employees to replace those who had left. The town is still seeking a full-time driver/operator whose salary could start at $23 per hour, depending on experience.
“If we reduce our [administrative] budget this year, we will not be able to cure our problems,” Durepo said. “You can’t hire employees today without offering higher wages and benefits.”
The same is true for the town manager’s salary, Elliot said.
The town worked with Bangor-based legal firm Eaton Peabody to hire a new town manager. The firm recommended increasing the annual salary from $58,000 to $80,000. The later number is more aligned with manager salaries in Maine and New England, Elliot said.
Resident Vicki Page asked how the town could justify the higher salary when their new town manager does not have municipal experience.
On Monday, the Select Board voted to hire real estate manager Alvin Lam as the new manager. Elliot said they are still negotiating a contract and he will train Lam.
The board chose Lam after rejecting five applicants in January that they said were unqualified for the job, Elliot said.
Several amended budget figures also confused residents. Elliot cited amounts that differed from what was on record.
For instance, in May both the Select Board and school committee approved a $4,756,393 total budget, an increase from last year’s $4,341,088. At the time, school officials said the proposed regular instruction expenses rose to $1,753,851, compared to $1,354,534 last year.
But in his town meeting note, Elliot cited last year’s instruction totaled $1.7 million.
Special education was originally projected to have one of the largest increases — from $293,738 last year to the proposed $520,054 this year. But Elliot said last year’s figure was actually $351,108.
“We put in the numbers from 2021-2022 instead of what was passed last year,” Elliot said.
The town’s website currently does not have a version of the budget articles with Elliot’s updated numbers.
With the confusing budget figures and unanswered questions, residents proposed postponing the annual town meeting until June 28. Officials have two weeks to review the budget and post a notice to residents no later than seven days before the meeting.
Residents voted 48-42 to postpone the meeting.
“I think you need time to come up with a new warrant,” resident Joe McLaughlin said.
The meeting is slated at 6:30 p.m. on June 28, at Limestone Community School.