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Fort Fairfield Council Must Tweak Out a

$1 Million Budget Shortfall

 

By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, May 19, 2021

 

The town of Fort Fairfield held their second budget hearing for their 2021-22 budget on May 5 at the Fort Fairfield Community Center with around two dozen townspeople in attendance.

   This year's proposed budget is $7,132,273, which is $246,639 more than last year's and $1.05 million  more than what the town projects to bring in to cover it.

   “I today have gone over all of the different departments, all of the requests versus what was in the budget last year.  For me, the amount that we are over is not okay,” said town councilor, Melissa Libby.  “I think that some of it is necessary and I think that some of it we really need to fine-tune.”

So, that's why I thought it warranted going through every single item.  I noticed some things in the budget, I feel like are not necessary items and we can possibly trim some of those things.”

     Earlier this year, there was groundswell of opposition to the increased taxes caused by the town's sketchy and error-filled revaluation completed last Summer which caused the taxes of some people in town on fixed incomes to more than double.  Libby says she is not in support of any budget that would raise taxes even further still, this time around.  “I agree with the taxpayers.  I, myself do not want a tax increase.  I don't think anybody does.  Again, services cost money, but somewhere there has to be a happy medium and I think that we can get close to it, we just have to all work together.  We have some work to do before we can approve this budget.”

   Libby also advised the tax payers that the town's expenses are only a small part of the overall hit on local taxpayers since the local school department absorbs a lion's share of the town's limited annual tax revenues.   “I want to make sure that people know we appreciate everyone coming here and giving your input, but you also need to be going to the school board meetings and giving your input there because their budget affects our budget.  That needs to be taken into account, as well.” 

   Town council chair, Mitch Butler agreed with Libby.  “If we look at last year, with the school department, 62% of our budget went to the school department; 31% went to municipal,” said Butler.  “So our decision's hard to make until we get the budget from the school because we can't set anything until we get the budget and that's usually done after we get through our presentation here.  It's always been a fight to get anything from the school department and we have no say. 

  Butler noted how the school budget is voted on by the public before it is finalized by the school board and sent to the town.  “The thing is, the school budget is voted on by you, the public.  Like Melissa said, you have to attend the school budget hearings because once they [pass their budget] we can't turn it back, we have to pay it up.  So, if we want to even things out we have to go to the school budget hearings and say you have to make some cuts somewhere in the school department because when you have 62 percent of your taxpayer budget going to the school department, we [the town council] have no say on that.”

    While the school's vote on their budget has always been open to the public, and local taxpayers have had the opportunity to show up to vote on it, those budget votes have historically only been attended by the teachers and staff of the school who almost always vote unanimously to approve the budget that ultimately pays their salaries.  

   The school budget meeting and vote in Fort Fairfield is scheduled for May 25 at 6pm at the FFMHS gym.

   Since the first public hearing on the budget on April 28, some questions by taxpayers in town have been submitted to the town office for futher clarification.  Town manager, Andrea Powers noted that all questions asked from the First public budget hearing through to the town council meeting on May 19 will be answered at that council meeting.

   Two Fort Fairfield inhabitants spoke during the public comment period.  Darrin Condon was the first to speak and he rose in support of the newly-created full time Fort Fairfield Fire/Resuce service.  “On many occasions we have called 911 for police and EMTs.  When Presque Isle was contacted for the EMT service, we had two separate occasions that we had to wait over forty minutes to get any service.  Waiting a long time for help to arrive makes circumstances very dangerous, especially when my wife is home alone with the girls,” said Condon.

     He then stated that response times are much better now that the ambulance service is in town.  “We had to make two separate calls for the police and for the EMTs to come to our [home] to assist our daughter.  The waiting time was less than ten minutes.  We need these services.  Knowing that we have these services readily available to our town makes both my wife [and me] feel safer and supported.  I do understand that having these services come at a cost.  But, until you need any of these services you do not understand how important it is.”

   Tom Towle, a  lifetime inhabitant in Fort Fairfield and forty-year plus employee of Fort Fairfield, as director of the Fort Fairfield Parks & Recreation Department (now retired) also spoke.  “I've had the good pleasure of working in this building, working for the town, working with no less than 200 different council members and I believe eight town managers.  I'm here tonight because I'm concerned, as a citizen,” said Towle.  “I want everybody here to think about the fact that last two years there has been close to two million dollars in additional expenditures that have been spent for municipal government.  That's a forty percent increase in two years.  Those numbers are on your sheets, you can take a look at them.  I know Mitch mentioned the school.  They're accounting for a 12.9 percent increase of that amount over the last two years.  I just hope that everybody, department heads, town manager, town council, can work together, consider all taxpayers including those that are on fixed incomes who relied this year, a lot of them, on COVID relief money to help pay their tax bills.  We're an aging community.  We have to be very conscious with how we spend the taxpayers' money.  I know it's a tough job.  I've been there.  I've been in these meetings.  I know how it works.  I also understand that when you're a taxpayer, and you've got to provide the money to pay the taxes, and you're hit with - in some cases, in one year taxpayers saw a one hundred percent increase in their tax bill.  I'm very concerned about that two million dollar expenditure increase in the last two years.  I'm a little bit disappointed, personally, with the explanation as to where the money is being spent, during these public hearings for the budget.  I can tell you that in years past, I've sat in these meetings and it's taken two to three hours - sometimes - to present to an audience when it comes to the presentation of the budget.  I realize there have been years, also, when there has not been a tax increase and taxpayers are not concerned, where you're looking at empty chairs, nobody's concerned, because there hasn't been a tax increase.  Typically, it takes something like this to wake up the community.  Unfortunately, they've been awoke.  I think we need to as a community, and as a town to consider all, not only the budgets, not only the departments, not only the people that use the services, but we need to consider everybody when we put this budget together.”

   Towle further elaborated, “It's not an easy situation.  I wouldn't be here if I wasn't concerned.  I think sometimes citizens have to speak up.  It's all too easy for people to say things in coffee shops and other locations and it's not done in a positive way to try to initiate positive results.  I think anybody who has anything to say should bring their concerns to the council.  I know we've got a wise group of people up here.  I'm sure they're going to look, they're going to listen, and when they make the decision that ultimately we have to live with for the next year, I'm sure they're going to take our concerns into consideration. 

   The audio for the meeting was recorded by Fort Fairfield Journal and is clear enough to understand.  Those who wish to listen to the audio file may link to it online at www.wffjtv.com

   The town council will be meeting on Wednesday, May 19 at 6pm to discuss the budget and received answers from questions submitted to the town.  They may also unveil their ideas on how to reign in the $1 million budget shortfall before they have to vote to approve the budget next month.