Aroostook town with $1M deficit wants council to leave parks and rec alone

1 year ago

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Residents of an Aroostook County town more than $1 million in debt packed a council meeting last night to protest proposed budget cuts.

It was standing room only in Fort Fairfield’s town council chambers Wednesday evening as community members told councilors to leave the Parks and Recreation Department alone and find another way to fix the town’s million-dollar deficit.

Fort Fairfield has been dogged with money woes that in the past year saw the creation of a controversial budget advisory committee and a severe hike in residential property taxes from 19.5 to 26.5 mills. Then the town learned it was more than $1.2 million in debt with only $199,000 in the bank.

For Interim Town Manager Dan Foster and other officials, getting back in the black means cuts in every department for 2023.

“You can’t create a large budget for a small town,” Foster said. “What you’ll have is a small town going broke.”

Foster has been at the helm before, having served as town manager from 1998 to 2013. He stepped in when the former town manager, Andrea Powers, resigned in September.  

But it was a suggested cut in the recreation budget of about $50,000 that brought so many residents out, including adults and about 20 young people. More than 16 people spoke during public comment to support the department and its director, Kevin Senal, and to urge councilors to rethink slashing the budget. 

Without rec programs to keep kids busy, they’re going to get into other things, Arlene Wright said. 

The department offers things that benefit youths’ physical and emotional well-being, and eliminating programs would be detrimental, Andrea Cormier said. 

“We have overspent and that’s a problem, but I think it’s premature to look at the rec department to solve this,” Ryan Cormier said. 

Nathan Everitt, 17, said if the department cuts personnel, that could mean fewer student job opportunities. He wants a job, but with more and more businesses closing opportunities are slim, he said.

The department was allotted a budget of $158,000 two years ago and only spent $112,000, Foster said. In 2022 the budget rose to $296,000 — almost double.  

No one is talking about killing the rec department, just bringing its budget down to something reasonable. And every department is being asked to trim its budget to save the town money, he said.

One resident asked Senal how the cuts would affect current programming. Senal said no plans are in the works to eliminate any programs, but the quality of the offerings may be affected. They are looking at trimming wages, which could mean fewer employees. And fewer people involved in a program means less one-on-one interaction with youth.

Council chairman Bob Kilcollins said any cuts won’t affect services for kids. Town officials are looking at other ways to save money.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as people think it is. We’ve got to make some changes to get our taxes down,” said councilor Kevin Pelletier, who joined the meeting via video.”The reason we’re in this mess is because of all the money we spent.”

The council’s job is to present a budget so residents don’t see another huge tax increase, resident Gary Sirois said. Though people blame the former town manager for the town’s situation, Sirois said there’s plenty of blame to go around and everyone has to give up something to save money.


FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — December 21, 2022 — Outgoing Fort Fairfield town councilors Melissa Libby (left) and Mitch Butler (center) receive plaques in recognition of their service from Council Chairman Bob Kilcollins on Dec. 21. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

The town’s fire and rescue department has been a major cause of budget concerns in the past. In 2018 its budget was $140,000, but then the town started an emergency medical services department in 2020. In 2021, the total fire and EMS budget shot to $1.3 million, and rose to $1.7 million in 2022.

In his report to the council, Fire Chief Michael Jalbert said the department has sold an SUV and is working to sell a ladder truck to bring costs down and help pay for a second ambulance. Thanks to selling off other vehicles, they can acquire a used ambulance at no additional cost, he said.

In November, the department saw 46 EMS calls and four fire calls, Jalbert said. 

The council later voted unanimously to approve the sale of a newer ambulance to the town of Van Buren for $150,000.

In other business, Kilcollins presented outgoing councilors Melissa Libby and Mitch Butler with plaques recognizing their service to the town. Both joined the council in 2017 and Butler served as chairman in 2021.

Councilors learned that Cheryl Boulier, who had announced this year she would step down from organizing the Maine Potato Blossom Festival, is back on board and has just received a tourism grant of $10,000 for the annual summer event.

The rec department has received several grants and donations, including a $2,500 Walmart community award and an anonymous donation of a video security system for the recreation center, Kilcollins said.

With unanimous votes, the council also approved the appointment of Elizabeth Reed to the Library Advisory Board, the sale of land to K-Pel Industrial Services and a motion to allow Jalbert to purchase the used ambulance for the town.

The town council will meet next at 6 p.m. on Jan. 3.

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — December 21, 2022 — Fort Fairfield Town Manager Dan Foster listens to discussion during the council’s Dec. 21 meeting. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)