FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — After initial negotiations, Fort Fairfield leaders are inviting the public to share their views on the proposed fiscal year budget.
The town will hold its first public budget hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 3, at the VFW Paul Lockhart Post 6187 at 130 Presque Isle St.
Town councilors held their first workshop with the citizen budget advisory committee on April 5. The budget advisory committee met one week later. Interim Town Manager Dan Foster has since released an updated budget proposal on the town’s website and Facebook page. Copies are available at the town office.
The new expense budget proposes a $1,449,454 reduction in operating costs and other expenses for the 2023-24 fiscal year, Foster said.
The $7,544,530 total budget marks a $134,450 increase from the $7,410,080 proposed in March, but it is a $199,035 decrease from the $7,743,565 budget approved by councilors last year.
A total projected revenue of $7,652,133 would reduce the initially predicted deficit from $176,725 to $107,603.
The money largely comes from an increase in state revenue sharing. The town initially expected to receive $925,000 in the next fiscal year but now will receive $1,030,328. Last year it received $905,807.
Resident Kevin Bouchard criticized the proposed budget as being too close to the one councilors passed last June, which led to a mill rate of 26.5, a drastic jump from 19.5 the previous year.
“Do you really think the reaction from our taxpayers will be any different this year if we provide something similar to what we ran down their throats last year?” Bouchard told town councilors Wednesday.
Bouchard referred to a report that he and other residents want to submit to the town council, with budget recommendations. Council chair Robert Kilcollins recommended that Bouchard present the information outside of the regular council meeting and attend the May 3 public hearing.
Bouchard had served on the budget advisory committee when the town council established it last year.
The current proposed budget would only reduce the mill rate by .75 mills. But once the town’s debt is paid, the town could have more room to decrease the mill rate to 22.5 or 23, Foster said.
Budget cuts, including those in popular programs like the library and parks and recreation, are necessary for the town to reduce its long-term debt by $600,000 and pay off its $1,275,000 in short-term debt by February 2024, he said.
In the budget, Foster is requesting a tax anticipation note of $1 million to provide the town with more funds from July through February. As tax bills get paid this fall, the town should have enough funds between the note and its revenue to pay off the short-term debt, he said.
Since Foster became town manager in September, he and department officials have reduced the current fiscal year budget by $800,000. That has helped put the town on a stronger path of paying off its debt, which Foster said has been his biggest goal.
“Before we find a new town manager, we need to get these financial issues resolved,” Foster said. “[If we don’t] it will be very hard to find someone willing to step into this and put their reputation and career on the line.”
Fort Fairfield will begin searching for a new town manager shortly after completing its Community Empowerment Project. The town hired Catherine Ingraham of CEI Consultants to interview town employees on what they feel needs to change in order to avoid future financial dilemmas.
Ingraham has completed interviews and will submit her report to town leaders prior to her meeting with them on Tuesday, May 9. After that, a public meeting will gather input on what the town should choose as future goals.
The project will likely finish in late May or early June after Ingraham submits her final report, Foster said.
In other business, the town council appointed Stev Rogeski to the budget advisory committee. He joins members Jason Barnes, Billie Jo Sharpe, Danielle Cote, Chuck Ainsworth and Ann Hull.
The next budget advisory committee meeting will be held Wednesday, May 10 at the Fort Fairfield Town Office, at 18 Community Center Drive.
The town council will hold their next regular meeting at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 17, also at the town office.