Aroostook towns protest bundled services arrangement with Ashland

3 weeks ago

Concern over subsidies to the Town of Ashland for shared municipal services led residents of two surrounding communities to vote against those payments last week.

Masardis and Portage Lake voted on the measure during their annual town meetings on March 21 and 22, respectively.

The municipalities pay Ashland for emergency services, the use of the recreation department and the library as a package. But the towns don’t like the bundled services arrangement and say any leftover funds from payments they make go into Ashland’s general fund.

Masardis and Portage voters rejected the services package because they want to work with Ashland on a way to pay for only those they want, said select board members of both communities.

“Ashland has always offered them as an all or nothing, meaning if we don’t pay for all of them, then we can’t have any of them,” said Michelle Johnson, chair of the Portage Select Board.

Portage understands from its arrangement that any leftover money it pays for services is moved to Ashland’s general fund at the end of the fiscal year, Johnson said. Portage residents think the money then benefits the Town of Ashland and believe that’s wrong, she said.

It’s not about the actual services. The town likes the services and wants to keep them, but wants to make sure things are fair, she said. Residents think what is paid to Ashland should stay in the services budget.

“That is the big driving force of Portage voting no. We would like to come to an agreement and understanding and have a contract for [only] the ambulance service,” Johnson said.

This year, Portage, a town of 359, was assessed $59,670 for ambulance services, $18,518 for library and $16,463 for recreation, said Portage Lake Town Manager Corinne Routhier. It has its own fire department.

Residents in nearby Masardis, a town of 200, discussed the general fund issue, but the town’s main concern is keeping necessary services without having to raise taxes, said Gerard Charette, a member of the town’s select board.

Masardis has seen subsidies rise under the bundled services arrangement for the past three to four years, Charette said. This year its subsidies were $33,907 for ambulance services, $8,937 for fire protection, $10,533 for library and $9,355 for recreation.

Discussion ensued at the town meeting over increased library costs, which rose about $3,000 from 2023, and ambulance services, which increased about $2,500. Residents supported fire and ambulance, but in order to avoid town tax increases decided they could go without the library and recreation services, Charette said.

“Our citizens are concerned about having the ambulance services available,” he said. “And I am on the volunteer fire department, and we don’t have enough people to get things done if there is an emergency. We do depend on Ashland’s services.”

Residents voted not to accept paying all four subsidies to Ashland as presented. A second motion was introduced to pay for fire and ambulance only, and that measure passed, he said. 

Ashland isn’t likely to budge. Town Manager Cyr Martin said if the towns did things their way, Ashland’s mill rate would go up, and the subsidies still don’t cover the costs of providing the services. He confirmed that any leftover money from subsidies goes into the general fund’s reserve budget, which is used strictly to buy equipment. 

Ashland charges subsidies to five communities: Portage, Masardis, and Garfield, Nashville and Oxbow plantations. Aroostook County pays an ambulance subsidy, too, because Ashland covers the North Maine Woods all the way to the Canadian border.

Martin said he knew some communities were upset because their subsidies increased. 

“Years ago, subsidies were so trivial that it wasn’t meeting expenses,” he said. “We reformulated how we assessed the subsidies a few years ago, to assess by population, so it was fair for everyone. At that point the subsidies went up.”

Previous subsidies were a more arbitrary fraction of Ashland’s costs, he said. They did not pay Ashland enough to offer the services, so Ashland’s expenses rose. In order to avoid increasing its own tax base, the town sought more money from neighboring communities.

Surrounding towns don’t always understand the costs involved with providing services, he said. For instance, increased wages and equipment costs drove the ambulance budget up this year, and Ashland also spent close to $26,000 on a rescue snowmobile so it could attend emergencies on the trails. 

“They are paying for a service,” he said. “We don’t hit them up for equipment and repairs. They don’t see the whole picture.” 

In nearby Garfield Plantation, which held its town meeting on March 20, residents voted to pay the lump sum for the four subsidies, Town Clerk Brenda Clark said.

Assessments for Garfield, which has 79 residents, were $13,131 for ambulance, $3,461 for fire, $4,075 for library and $3,623 for recreation.

Johnson and Charette said their towns want to sit down with Ashland leaders to find an option they can agree on. Martin said he’s already met with the towns, but would be open to another meeting.

“My hope is that we can get together with Ashland officials and come to an agreement,” Johnson said.