PITTSFIELD — The Somerset County commissioners, in a meeting publicly announced just three minutes before it began Thursday morning, rejected the proposed county budget, though the day before it was approved by the nine-member Somerset County budget committee.
Instead, the commissioners put $1,260 back into the budget that was originally removed by the committee from Somerset County Cooperative Extension Service funding.
“If we take that away,” said Commissioner Zane Libby, “they will lose $25,000 in federal and state grants. They do a great deal of work for the farmers of Somerset County.”
Libby said the amended budget must now go back to the county budget committee, which will need a two-thirds majority to override the commissioners’ action.
D. Dwight Dogherty, Somerset County budget committee chairman, said Thursday that Extension representatives had appealed to the committee three times to increase their funding over last year’s amount. But all service agencies were treated the same, said Dogherty, receiving the same level of funding they got in 1999, regardless of how much was requested.
In some cases, he said, the committee approved even less than level funding.
“The budget committee is obviously trying to keep the cost of county government down,” Dogherty said.
Dogherty said the committee’s vote Wednesday night was divided, and he doubted the committee could muster the two-third’s majority vote needed to override the commissioners’ action.
“Three members voted for the funding,” said Dogherty, “while four voted against. We likely will not be able to get two-thirds.”
No one was available at the county extension office to comment on the appropriation.
Downscaling county funding of the extension, however, appears to be part of a larger effort to move the service into the county courthouse so the sheriff’s department can be relocated to the current extension building.
Dogherty said that the one-story brick building on Norridgewock Avenue in Skowhegan, currently used by the extension service, is adjacent to land being developed as a countywide E-911 center. The extension building and land is county-owned, he said, and would make an ideal space for the sheriff’s department.
He suggested that two entities could just switch places. “We could put the extension service in the county building and relocate the sheriff’s office,” said Dogherty.
He said the move would make sense in terms of efficiency and also would provide for storage tanks of gasoline and pumps to allow the county to further save money on fuel for county cruisers.
Sheriff Barry DeLong said Thursday that there had been several preliminary discussions between him and Commissioner Joe Bowman and Dogherty several months ago, but that no one had detailed such a move or brought it up recently.
Although DeLong said he would like to remain neutral about such a move, he would welcome “anything that would get me out of this cellar hole.”
The sheriff’s department and communications center currently uses a warren of small offices in the basement of the century-old county courthouse.
An attempt to purchase a building, formerly the home of Senior Spectrum, across the street from the courthouse for the sheriff’s department failed last month when the budget committee cut the proposal from the budget.
DeLong said he agreed with Dogherty that the extension service building “is an excellent location” and that having the ability to pump his own gas could save the county “thousands of dollars. Certainly, it would pay for the pumps in two years.”
“At this point,” said DeLong, “I am so busy setting up the [E-911 center] I haven’t had time to pursue this. I will go along with what is best for the county and best for the sheriff’s department.”
Dogherty said no date had been set for the budget committee to act on the commissioners’ move, but that if the budget is not passed by today, the county can operate in 2000 on a budget that is 80 percent of the budget for 1999, until a new budget is passed.