Fort Fairfield sees light at end of financial tunnel

10 months ago

After a tumultuous financial ride over several years, Fort Fairfield residents will see a lower mill rate.

The rate will go down more than 2 mills, from 26.5 in 2022 to 24.25, Interim Town Manager Dan Foster told the Fort Fairfield Town Council Wednesday.

For two years, residents harshly questioned budgeting, high spending and a perceived lack of transparency about financial information from former Town Manager Andrea Powers. The new rate, combined with the fact that the community is well on its way to paying down more than $1 million in debt, means the town is finally on positive footing, Foster said.

It was Foster’s farewell as interim leader and the first meeting for newly hired Town Manager Tim Goff. Foster said it was a year he won’t soon forget. He didn’t blame Powers, but said the financial difficulties were unfortunate.

“This was not easy for anyone. I believe we have an amazing future because of the community we have,” he said. “To our citizens and our dear taxpayers, you guys took a hit. I really felt the community came together through all of this.”

Foster came in last September after Powers left. Under his tenure, the town learned it had $1,275,000 in short-term debt, and had gone from having $946,000 in the bank in 2020 to only $199,000 in 2022. 

Foster aimed to resolve the financial chaos, and in February the town hired a consultant to help it claw back from debt. During this year’s budget process, departments cut about $1 million in expenses.  

The town generated more than $100,000 in July, the largest income in a month since its financial crisis started.  

The draft audit for the 2022-2023 fiscal year showed the municipal fund balance is now $332,000, compared with negative $552,000 last year, because income exceeded expenses, Foster said. 

He thanked the councilors and town employees for remaining positive and doing the necessary hard work to get Fort Fairfield back on track as Goff takes the helm.  

“Tim has a good feel for local government because he’s been here,” Foster said. “I’m confident about him being able to step in.”

Goff updated the council on recommendations from the Community Empowerment Project. Those suggestions included providing information to new councilors, holding a council retreat at the beginning of the year, detailing the job requirements of the town manager and amending the town’s charter to require voting by supermajority, though they did not specify what the majority would be.

The council will also add a public comment period to the end of regular meeting agendas, and will work with the town’s budget advisory committee to formulate a detailed budget process, Goff said.

Councilors voted to hold public hearings at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 11, on ordinances to set the town’s mill rate, approve general assistance guidelines and amend the town charter to allow supermajority voting. 

An additional hearing is planned that evening to establish an adult use and medical marijuana business ordinance.

Newly hired Fort Fairfield Town Manager Tim Goff (left) listens as Dan Foster, outgoing interim town manager, address the council Wednesday, Sept. 20. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

The council voted unanimously to adopt a proclamation honoring Fort Fairfield resident Mavis Towle’s 100th birthday, and to declare Oct. 23, 2023, as her centennial day.

“It is with immense joy and heartfelt admiration that we honor Mavis Ladner Towle,” said tax assessor Tony Levesque, reading the proclamation. “She has been an inspiration for families, friends and the community at large.”

Towle owned and operated The Modern Shop from 1948 to 1963 and was office manager of the utilities district until her retirement in 1991, Levesque said.

In other business, the group considered a request from Councilor Pat Canavan to do away with the town’s automated answering system. Listening to an unfamiliar voice drone on and give options doesn’t send the right message, she said, and suggested town staff answer the phones.

“It’s frustrating, it’s not welcoming, it puts up barriers and I think we should get rid of it,” she said. “I think we should be friendly and welcoming and I think this would make a difference.”

The council took no action on the proposal.

Foster updated the group on the Aroostook Agency on Aging’s Access Points for Aging, in which area towns will house information and resource areas for older residents. Fort Fairfield will use its library, he said. A key sign-out plan will allow people to use it when the library isn’t open.

The council also voted on the following:

To appoint Foster, Canavan and Councilor James Ouellette to the budget advisory committee.

To remove from the general ledger old tax debt owed by the defunct ReEnergy company. When the city received the property, it agreed to forego collecting those taxes, Foster said.

To appoint Goff as the new alternate board member for Aroostook Waste Solutions.

To appoint Chris Campbell to the town planning board.

The next meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18.