AUBURN — Preliminary 2017 budget figures for Androscoggin County show the commissioners’ budget may be reduced by more than 22.5 percent.

If that figure of $216,600 holds, that would be the largest percentage drop in next year’s growing budget. But some commissioners were alarmed Wednesday at the lower amount budgeted for legal fees, indicating that additional money may be added to that budget line.

County Administrator Larry Post released the preliminary budget Wednesday to give commissioners their first look. It features an overall increase of 8.85 percent.

“This budget reflects some of the needs to put us on track to move forward, and reflects ongoing costs to meet the obligations we have,” Post wrote in a statement introducing the budget. “Staff has been seeking ways to reduce costs, but it usually requires an investment up front. We have identified many capital needs for the next five years, but the difficulty will be to find the money to make a dent in the needs.”

Commissioners met for nearly three hours to review the proposed budget figures for 20 departments. Commissioners still need to review budgets for the Emergency Management Agency and the Sheriff’s Office, which also includes civil process, communications and the jails.

An agreement earlier this year to accept a lower salary and eliminate all health benefits for themselves helped lower the amount budgeted for the seven commissioners. Post also proposed that the line for legal fees be reduced by a third to $50,000.

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That raised a red flag among some commissioners, who were concerned about continued pending litigation and work on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Of the $75,000 budgeted for legal fees in the current budget, the county has already spent nearly $73,000 with four months remaining in the fiscal year.

Commissioner Randall Greenwood directed Post to consult with the commissioners’ attorneys from Skelton, Taintor and Abbott to get their opinion on a suggested amount for legal fees.

Another line that caught the commissioners’ attention was the item for painting and repairs in the Building Department. Facilities Director David Cote moved the cost of painting from capital improvements to the regular budget, because painting should be considered normal maintenance, he said.

Because of the change, the amount from $200 to $10,000. The $10,000 would be used to paint the new probate courtroom.

Many commissioners felt that price was way too high, but Cote countered that he based the estimate on how much it cost to paint the larger Registry of Deeds office. He also stressed the probate courtroom has 14-foot-high ceilings, which will add to the cost.

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Post urged commissioners to take a long-term view of the budget and not just focus on next year. Potential areas of concern for Post include jail funding and the low amount in the unassigned fund balance.

The auditor who looked over the county’s books pointed out that amount needs to get rebuilt “to a level sufficient to sustain government operations for a period of approximately two months.”

Commissioners also met with two of their attorneys for a pair of executive sessions concerning personnel issues. The sessions lasted nearly one hour and 20 minutes combined.

The review of the budget continues at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7.  A public hearing to finalize the budget before it goes to the Budget Committee is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 14.

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