Public access to the Fort Fairfield proposed town budget in question

3 years ago

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — There’s a rolling boil under Fort Fairfield’s surface these days, with local residents expressing serious concerns about the town’s management and spending. 

“To see these expenditures, we need some transparency from the town council on how the money is being spent,” Chuck Ainsworth said in a January meeting. “We need to look at spending and ask, is it worth it? What are we getting from that investment? If we can’t run it like a business, if we can’t remain solvent as a town … what is the return on investment and please look to the future.”

Since that packed January meeting, townspeople have been meeting in small groups and coming to town meetings, pushing the “run it like a business” refrain and calling on the town council to find ways to reduce the FY 2021-2022 budget. 

A few attended a budget planning workshop with department heads and continue to ask for a copy of that initial proposed budget to help them understand future expenditures.

But the proposed budget is still not available to residents. And it won’t be until the first public hearing on April 28, according to Town Manager Andrea Powers. 

“Council has decisions to make before it is presented at the public budget hearing,” Powers said this week when several residents began asking for copies prior to the public hearing. 

Town councils cannot hold private budget meetings or go into executive session regarding budgetary planning, according to Maine public access law.

Powers maintains the council does not meet in private or email each other about the budget. 

The Bangor Daily News has filed a FOAA request for all email, phone and physical conversations between the town and the town council regarding the budget. Powers responded to the request, saying she would gather the information, but did not give a date as to when it would be available.

Town Councilor Robert Kilcollins said the council has already rejected one budget Powers presented to them and they are waiting to see another before the public hearing. There is no public record of that meeting or any record of an upcoming budget planning meeting prior to the public hearing at the end of the month.

There have been rumors spreading around town that the new budget may again increase, that’s why they wanted to see a copy to help them prepare for the public hearing. And many residents believed they would receive a copy of the FY 2021-2022 proposed budget at this week’s town council meeting because it was on the town’s budget planning calendar. 

The budget was not presented to the town council or to residents. 

At the end of the meeting, several gathered in the back of the Community Center gymnasium and outside, expressing their anger that they did not get a copy of the budget.

“We need a copy so we can plan for the public hearing,” Jeff Armstrong said, with others nodding in agreement. “We need at least two weeks.”

Powers explained she had never planned to present the proposed budget at that meeting, despite the calendar posting. 

“Per our Town Charter, we have two Public Budget Hearings where the budget proposal is presented to the Council for the first time in April,” she said, adding that it would be available in a more complete form for residents at the first public hearing. “This process has been in place long before I was hired to be the town manager here. I am following that process.”

Since 2018, according to the Fort Fairfield town website, the budget has been presented to the town council at the regular April meeting, ahead of the public hearing. The schedule for several  prior years: Presentation of budget to town council by department heads; presentation of budget to town council; first public budget hearing; final public budget hearing; town council budget discussion; approve budget.

Other towns and cities handle budget proceedings according to the individual town charter, often with recommendations coming from the Maine Municipal Association. 

In Presque Isle, for example, prior to any city council meeting, the agenda and a detailed meeting packet with sometimes 30 or more pages of supplementary materials are posted for public review. 

Councilor Kilcollins said on Friday afternoon that he would call the town manager to get copies of the proposed budget for anyone who wants a copy. It is not known at this time if Kilcollins was able to obtain the copies for residents.

“I’ll be the point man for the information,” he said.

In February, several townspeople presented a document to the town council asking for a reduced FY 2021-2022 budget. In that document they said if their concerns were not addressed, they would consider getting a petition for a referendum on line items in the budget. 

According to the town charter, residents have one week to file a petition for a referendum on the item. That means, the townspeople do have some recourse if they are opposed to certain amounts in the upcoming budget. And with the referendum, the voters can decide on an alternate amount.

After repeated attempts to ask Powers about the possibility of a referendum on budget line items, she did not comment.

Powers said that the budget is the decision of the town council and she is only doing what the town council asks her to do. If residents are unhappy with the town council’s decisions, the townspeople can vote them out of office, she said.

On Friday, the town posted an ad about the public hearing on the budget. The ad said that residents could view the complete budget in the town office. As of Friday afternoon, the budget was not available.

The Fort Fairfield budget hearings are slated for 6 p.m. April 28 and 6 p.m. May 5 in the Community Center Gymnasium. The final council budget discussion is scheduled for May 19 after both public hearings take place. The council votes to either approve or reject the proposed FY 2021- 2022 budget at the June 16 Town Council meeting.