The Star-Herald

Fort Fairfield passes unplanned budget, will now allow ATVS on streets

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — The Fort Fairfield Town Council voted 3-2 Wednesday, June 15,  to pass an unplanned budget that would net a lower tax rate than a proposed 30.8 mill rate as presented by the budget advisory committee.  

In later action, the council also voted to pass an ordinance that will allow all-terrain vehicles to use town streets to access trails.

This is the second year of budget woes for Fort Fairfield, which last year formed its Budget Advisory Committee to give taxpayers more of a voice in town finances when tax hikes incited public protest. 

Following public comments protesting the budget proposals, the council discussed and then rejected all three options before them. They instead adopted a fourth option, which was to hold spending at current levels and allow only for those salary increases mandated by union negotiations.

The total 2022-23 town budget figure was not included in the council’s final motion to pass the budget. The only numbers stated were a projected deficit of $854,870 and an estimated mill rate of 24.

No amounts are available for the new budget since none were prepared for that option and council discussion did not include specific numbers. The Fort Fairfield Town Office does not have the figures, a representative said Tuesday, June 21, since the option voted on was unplanned. 

Several attempts to contact Town Manager Andrea Powers and to obtain budget figures were unsuccessful.

Budget Advisory Committee member Kevin Bouchard had strong words against the entire budget negotiation process during the meeting’s public comment period.

“We generally have managers and councilors on the same page, that are working together to try to pull the community forward,” Bouchard said. “My personal observation is that we have a dysfunctional town manager/town council relationship and we have a hopelessly dysfunctional budget process. The one voice that has hardly been heard during this whole process is that of the taxpayer.”

Smith’s Farm President Emily Smith, a Presque Isle resident whose business owns property in Fort Fairfield, said the property’s valuation has increased 73 percent since 2019, with a tax hike of 112 percent. That’s about 80,000 per year for the family business, she said.

“This clearly is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for our business, and it’s definitely not sustainable for your town,” she said. “I can’t pack up my land and go farm in another town.  But I can go broke,” she said.

SAD 20 represented 59 percent of the proposed budget plans for Fort Fairfield, according to Smith, who said she felt for the town and feared the tax hikes would drive families and businesses away.

Overspending that began with the town’s ambulance service needs to be curtailed, resident David Dorsey said.  

“We have a cash flow problem and we’ve got to stop it. The only way you stop it is you live within your means,” he said. “This is a little town. Maybe we can’t afford the best.”

The town’s EMS budget has gone from around $130,000 per year to a projected amount of more than $1 million next year, resident Jay Reynolds said. 

“It’s a nice thing to have, but I think we’ve bitten off a little more than we can chew here,” he said.

Reynolds suggested Fort Fairfield contact Caribou, Presque Isle and Mars Hill and collaborate with them by sharing calls and services.

After lengthy discussion, councilors rejected budget options as presented. Though they considered a motion to hold the budget flat, Town Manager Powers said that was not possible as a flat budget wouldn’t contain salary and other increases required through collective bargaining agreements. 

The council finally voted 3-2 to pass a budget equal to last year’s numbers, with the exception of the required salary increases, holding the projected deficit to $854,870.

A special town council meeting is planned Wednesday, June 29, at 6 p.m. in the council chambers to discuss an ordinance to provide for Fort Fairfield Fire Department cost recovery.

In other business, the council voted to amend its current ATV ordinance to include a new section permitting the vehicles to use town roads and streets to access ATV trails.

Powers said in a 14-day public comment period regarding the ordinance, the town received seven emails against it, three in favor and one neither for nor against. She recommended the council not approve the amendment.

“The sport has increased dramatically over the years, and I feel the ordinance is worth looking at,” Council Chairman Robert Kilcollins said. 

Councilor Mitchell Butler disagreed, noting he has heard from senior residents who have had to dodge ATVs while on the streets. And yes, Butler said, if someone gets hurt, the town probably will be liable.

The ATV community should step up to encourage riders to follow the rules, said councilor James Ouellette. If the ordinance does not work, it can be revoked.

Council member Melissa Libby suggested the ordinance be rewritten to allow ATVs access, but at the same time ensure people’s safety. 

The amendment includes such parameters as: riders of ATVS on Fort Fairfield’s streets must follow state helmet, age and other safety laws; ATVs must meet U.S. Department of Environmental Protection noise emission standards and not exceed 96 decibels; only Fort Fairfield residents may operate ATVs on town streets and roads, and only to access the nearest trails; ATVs on town streets and roads may not operate above 15 mph; ATVs must yield to pedestrians, bicycles, horses and other vehicles; ATVs must travel to the extreme right in the travel lane in single file.

The council voted 3-2 to accept the ordinance.

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