The Knox County Commission and Knox County Budget Committee voted Nov. 17 to propose two different versions of the 2017 Knox County budget. The two bodies spent much of the night debating the cost of the county’s dispatch center, which handles emergency and non-emergency service calls for the region.

The Budget Committee questioned Communications Director Linwood Lothrop for more than an hour before moving on to consider the Knox County Regional Airport budget and then voting to approve the total county budget. The committee voted unanimously to propose a total county budget, minus revenues, of $7,293,690, whereas the Knox County Commission voted 2-1 for a higher total of $7,335,146.

The committee and commission similarly approved two different versions of the budget for the Knox County Regional Communications Center, which is handled separately from the total county budget. The committee voted to propose a budget of $1,061,953, whereas the commission voted for the initially proposed amount of $1,101,957.

Several steps remain before the county budget is finalized. The two bodies will next meet at a public hearing Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. at the Knox County Courthouse. After that meeting, the committee will adopt a final budget, which the County Commission may vote unanimously to alter, and which the committee can then, in turn, reject with a vote by a two-thirds majority.

Budget Committee members grilled Lothrop over the budget for the Regional Communications Center. Members of the Budget Committee questioned costs for radio repairs and a proposed new deputy communications director position. Dorothy Meriwether, who represents South Thomaston, Vinalhaven and Owls Head on the Budget Committee, proposed a successful motion to remove $40,000 from the total.

At one point, Budget Committee Chair Robert Duke, who represents Rockport and Hope, seemed to question Lothrop’s commitment to his role as the county’s communications director. “To be candid, what do you do now, Linwood? Meaning, are you committed to Knox County, or are you committed to a statewide emergency 911 operation?” asked Duke. “I think we need to know that, because it sounds like a piece of your role now is not here.”

Lothrop responded that nationwide and local implementation of broadband, smartphone, and digital technology for emergency dispatch centers required him to attend seminars and legislative sessions outside of Knox County, but that his “role is 100 percent here.” He added, “If I don’t go and learn how the system works, I’m not in a position, really, to provide the best leadership for the county that I can.”

County Administrator Andrew Hart said, as he has multiple times throughout the budget process, that proposals had already been scrutinized by the county commissioners and agency managers before reaching the Budget Committee. County Commission Chair Roger Moody said public safety costs are unpredictable, but that citizens would expect preparedness for emergencies. “I always am fearful of cutting back on public safety and then find we have an emergency for which we’re not adequately funded or prepared to respond,” Moody said.

“This is not about cutting back,” Duke responded. “It’s a little disingenuous to think that the Budget Committee is not supporting this budget. We have. I’m personally just saying, ‘enough is enough.’” Duke said a $100,000 increase in the communications budget was “a lot of money” and no longer “a great deal for Rockport,” adding, “I’m not going to support the budget as it is.” The proposed communications budget for 2017 was $71,060 more than it was in 2016.

Other areas of discussion and disagreement included the purchase of new in-car laptops for sheriff’s deputies and funding of the Midcoast Economic Development District. The Budget Committee voted to halve the $32,500 expenditure for new laptops, whereas the commission voted 2-1 for the larger amount. The committee also voted to eliminate $25,206 for MCEDD, a Damariscotta-based economic development organization which counsels businesses and municipalities on funding and growth, while the commission voted to maintain the proposed funding.

The commission and committee agreed on the need for expenditures to repair the county jail's security system. Hart set aside $151,639 in the jail budget for a potential 10-year lease-purchase agreement to replace the system, reduced from an initial $175,000 because of a state law capping jail budget increases at 3 percent. Several security features at Knox County Jail have been dysfunctional for years, but repeated policy shifts at the state level over the past decade have made it difficult for Maine counties to fund their jails.

Reporter Dan Otis Smith can be reached at 594-4401 x123 or by email at dsmith@villagesoup.com.