Local farmer John Griffeth talks to Fort Fairfield town council about increased taxes and the impact on his family's farm at the February meeting. Credit: Screenshot of live-streamed meeting

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Noah Yoder, one of the first Fort Fairfield Amish settlers, shared with the town council in a letter last week that dramatically increasing property taxes may make it impossible for him to pass the family farm down to other generations.

“We moved our family to Fort Fairfield in 2007 …. Over time, we learned that Fort Fairfield was more than we had hoped for and we could trust that our tax money was spent wisely and clearly,” Yoder said.

“There are now 41 Amish families in the Fort Fairfield, Easton area and much has been added to the tax base. However, something is changing. Our taxes have gone up dramatically and we are no longer sure we can stay here and turn over our farm to the next generation.”

A steady stream of residents and farmers expressed concerns during the regular February Town Council meeting about the impact of the recent town revaluation on their taxes that rose more than 25 percent for some.

The recent property revaluation, also known as a reassessment, was necessary because it had been more than 20 years since properties had been valued, according to town tax assessor Tony Levesque.

“The last one was in 1998,” he said, adding that the property values did not represent the current market. “The values are now 100 percent and residents can now get 100 percent homestead exemption.”

Levesque said in an interview that with the older assessments, the state discounts those reimbursements.

Town Manager Andrea Powers explained to a disgruntled audience during the meeting that the town has done an excellent job of keeping services going and staff in jobs during the pandemic and that it ended the year under budget. Additionally, she scolded residents for not coming to public hearings about the budget.

Nonetheless, several residents questioned the town’s spending, saying it is out of control, referencing town services remaining the same during the pandemic.

“My name is Paul Reed, I have lived in Fort Fairfield for the past 10 years and me and my family have personally benefited substantially from being able to live in this community. This year, with the tax assessment, obviously long overdue, I found the process difficult,” he said. “Information was lacking, there was not a lot of opportunity to speak with the assessors. I called … I sent emails, finally we got a Google Earth reassessment.

“Our taxes ended up going up,” he continued. “I’m left with $1,000 added to my tax bill this year. So my question is, what assurances do we have as taxpayers that the mill rate is going to stay consistent? And that a year or two or three from now we’re not going to continue to see repetitive increases in taxes because that’s unsustainable.”

Fort Fairfield’s current mill rate is above the state average of $16.9, at $20.50, per $1,000 of property value. This new rate went into effect Oct. 1, 2020, reduced from a mill rate of $25.02.

Levesque said that anyone who is unhappy with the assessment can request a review. “Some just call and say, ‘can you come take a look,’ and I put it on my list of things to do,” he said.

Others pointed out that the town’s job is to tax fairly and spend wisely.

Another resident said his taxes last year were $1,364; this year they were $2,809.

“That’s quite an increase,” he said. “I don’t see how you can justify that. I know that taxes go up, but $1,400 is ridiculous.”

Several farmers, in addition to Yoder, expressed concern about dramatic property tax increases.

“I am here on behalf of Griffeth Farms; I farm with my father and two younger brothers. A week before COVID we were probably about a week or two away from settling all of our preseason contracts with McCain’s and Frito Lay. And nationally, It was my 26th year in farming, and we were in the best position negotiating-wise that farmers have been in. Usually we ask for peanuts and all we get are shells,” John Griffeth said. “After COVID we went from being in the best negotiating position to the worst since I have been farming.”

Griffeth shared that like many businesses, especially those in the food industry, their budget was not what they thought it would be and they were feeling squeezed.

“Our tax bill from last year to this year went up a little over 25 percent,” Griffeth said, adding that a property they purchased at auction for $150,000 was valued at $600,000 in the new revaluation.

Still, Powers defended the town’s decision.

“We collected taxes for this year. We have not had a citizen refuse to pay their taxes,” she said. “In fact, we are up $254,948 more in the collection of taxes this year, than we were last year.”

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...