For the University of Maine, changing how the town of Orono is paid for emergency and other services is almost like a mini-revolutionary war.
“It’s a question of ‘no taxation without representation.’ Well, that’s over-dramatizing it a little,” Mark Anderson, interim chief financial officer, said.
For the past three years UMaine has had a contract with Orono, which requires the university to pay 50 percent of the budget for Orono fire and ambulance service as well as half of the code enforcement and demolition dump budget and a quarter of the dispatch budget. According to Gerry Kempen, the town manager for Orono, UMaine’s total contribution for fiscal year 2001 was $640,000. That sum is being cut by $90,000 for fiscal year 2002, which begins July 1.
“That would represent a pretty big cut for us to handle,” Kempen said
The cut to the town comes as UMaine administrators attempt to cover an $8 million increase in health care costs that have resulted in a $5 million budget shortfall. A budget, with cuts made to cover these costs, was sent to the University of Maine Board of Trustees March 29.
“Because every additional dollar expanded outside the academic realm has a directly negative impact on our ability to educate students, we have no choice but to take a hard look at budget lines such as the Service Agreement between the University of Maine and the town of Orono,” Anderson wrote in a letter to Kempen.
Anderson said the biggest issue is that based on the contract between Orono and UMaine, the town determines the budget without any input from the university.
“The way it was structured was that they decide the budget and we pay half of it,” Anderson said. “We should be playing a role in that.”
Anderson said he is trying to come to an agreement with the town that will result in one of two things: either the university paying a fixed amount year to year or having representation from the university in making the town’s budget.
Another factor in this decision is that UMaine currently pays a much larger percent of the town’s budget than other UMS schools pay for their Service Agreements.
“What we pay to Orono is way out of line,” Anderson said.
He said the University of Southern Maine, which is half the size of UMaine, pays no money to Portland and only $12,500 to Gorham.
Kempen said while the university deserves representation, there is a simple explanation to why there has never been any.
“Basically, no one ever asked for one,” he said.
He said part of the reason UMaine pays so much is how much time town workers spend at UMaine.
“Our fire department, more than 50 percent of the calls go to the university,” Kempen said.
The terms of the current contact deem that after UMaine pays its percentage of the budget all fire services, code enforcement, demolition dump access and other services are fee-free. That may change.
“We would have to look at charging the university new fees,” Kempen said. “That is something we would do if the university were paying half the budget.”
These fees would include charges for false fire alarms and permits.
Another possible effect will be raising property taxes for Orono residents and cutbacks for the fire department.
“That’s something you never want to do if you can help it, but there will be cutbacks,” Kempen said.
The cutbacks would be personnel layoffs in the call-in department. While these fire fighters are volunteer, they are paid for some of their services. The same fate could befall the entire student volunteer program, which trains UMaine students to be firefighters, Kempen said.
“It would mean fewer people to respond to calls,” he said.
“I would not expect any serious safety concerns…we wouldn’t let that happen.”
No final decision has been made about UMaine’s representation in deciding budgets for the various service departments, Anderson said, but talks are still underway with the Orono Town Council.