Fort Fairfield taxpayer group seeks answers to municipal budget shortfalls

3 years ago

This story has been updated.

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Concerned about unanswered questions on the coming year’s municipal budget, including the whereabouts of unused funds, a group of citizens wants responses from the Fort Fairfield Town Council.

Copies of the fiscal year 2021-22 draft municipal budget proposal were on seats for those attending the first public budget hearing on April 28. The last-minute release of the information made it impossible for residents to ask questions about the proposed budget because there was no time to review it.

Town residents had been asking town officials and the council for advance copies of the proposed municipal budget to review before the hearing. And despite town advertisements offering residents an opportunity to review the complete budget in the town office, it was not available when several residents asked to see it.

When there were no answers to public questions at that first hearing, the Taxpayers of Fort Fairfield — a group comprised of town property owners concerned about town spending and increasing property taxes — compiled a list of advance questions for councilors. They called on the council to read their questions and recommendations at the second public hearing, which is slated for Wednesday, May 5.

In their formal request to the town council, the taxpayer group expressed their thanks to Councilwoman Melissa Libby, who at the end of last week’s hearing asked residents to send her their questions and she would try to obtain answers. 

Nonetheless, the taxpayers said it does nothing to build the confidence of disappointed residents who feel they have been denied the right to actively participate in two public hearings as specified by the town charter.

“Many in attendance at this hearing were surprised that the only opportunity to ask questions was at the beginning, when they had not yet had time to review the proposed budget,” the taxpayer group letter to council read.

The town charter states that there will be at least two public hearings. There is nothing in the charter precluding additional hearings so that questions may be answered. There is also nothing in the town charter that precludes the town council or the budget officer — Town Manager Andrea Powers — from answering questions from the public regarding the proposed budget prior to a town council vote. 

The budget hearing is the citizens’ opportunity to speak on specific items in the budget proposed at the first public budget hearing, Powers said, adding that all citizen requests will be considered before the final vote in June. 

The public is allowed to attend to watch council conduct council business. A citizen may speak when council gives the opportunity,” Powers said. “A citizen should direct questions they would like answered on the proposed budget for FY 2021-2022 to the town manager at the town office. Those questions will be presented to council in open session at council meeting this month and council will determine how to direct the town manager to move forward.”

The proposed 2021-22 budget currently shows total town revenues at $6,076,379 and expenses at $7,132,273, a deficit of $1,055,894. The town charter states “authorized expenditures shall not exceed the total of estimated revenue,” and the taxpayer group wants to know where the funds are to cover the shortfall.

Several resident questions seek an accounting of where unused funds went, including an insurance payment for the plow that burned and the remaining $38,918 from last summer’s cancelled festival. Another question asks who authorized $40,000 for town wreaths.

The group’s request for financial documents asks for a list of all reserve account balances as of May 2021; a list of all town liabilities including loans, bonds and notes payable; a copy of the agreement for the Fort Fairfield Solar project; and a list of all town-owned vehicles, by department, each with description (including year, make, model and purpose), purchase cost, year purchased/acquired, current value, and any remaining amount owed.

Additionally, the group has suggested several changes to the proposed budget to avoid more property tax increases coming in on the heels of last year’s tax hike for many residents. The taxpayers recommend that the council not increase any of the reserve accounts for this year, and remove $180,900 from the proposed budget. They also ask the council to reject the new proposed increase in property taxes, keeping the property tax amount flat, and reduce this budget to the amount necessary to balance the town budget.

The taxpayer group has posted the long list of budget questions to several social media outlets, hand delivered them to town officials and sent them to their email list of names.

The second public hearing on the proposed budget is slated for 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, at the community center. |