Fort Fairfield Town Council Chair Robert Kilcollins (left) speaks during a discussion on the budget advisory committee ordinance while councilor Kevin Pelletier looks on. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — The Fort Fairfield Town Council passed an ordinance last week that will establish and regulate a controversial new budget advisory committee.

The committee will consist of five to seven members who can advise the council on budget-related matters but cannot approve the budget themselves. Those on the council who support the committee see the move as necessary for gaining back the community’s trust after many opposed the budget and accused the town of reckless spending in 2021.

Those accusations began after the town’s first property tax revaluation in more than 20 years. Many residents, including local farmers, saw their property taxes rise by 25 percent. Despite noted reductions in the town’s mill rate since 2020, residents see their higher tax bills and expenses related to a new ambulance service as evidence that the council needs more community involvement in how to reduce costs to taxpayers.

The five-member council voted 3 to 2 last Wednesday in support of the ordinance, with Chairperson Robert Kilcollins and councilors Kevin Pelletier and James Ouellette voting yes. Councilors Melissa Libby and Mitch Butler voted against the ordinance.

During a discussion that grew tense, councilors debated whether the ordinance would help or hurt the budget process or undermine the role that Powers and department heads play in it.

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — March 16, 2022 — Fort Fairfield Town Manager Andrea Powers (right) explains her opposition to the newly passed budget advisory committee ordinance while councilors Kevin Pelletier (left) and James Ouellette look on. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

Pelletier said the committee is intended to include people who have experience forming budgets, such as accountants and banking professionals.

He said that the committee is a necessary step for ensuring that budget expenses do not lead to mill rate and tax increases for residents.

“Our forefathers weren’t dealing with what we’re dealing with now,” Pelletier said. “Right now I don’t see anything being done about our taxes going up.”

Pelletier was one of many residents who, prior to being elected to council last fall, spoke against increases in tax bills.

Ouellette, who opposed the 2021 budget along with his wife Sharon, was also recently elected as a first-time councilor. Though he did not offer comments on the ordinance during Wednesday’s meeting, he had been involved with The Taxpayers Group of Fort Fairfield.

That group had sent a notarized petition to the town after councilors approved the 2021 budget in late June, but the town clerk rejected it three times.

At numerous meetings last year, members of The Taxpayers Group spoke against what they believed to be excessive spending from the town, especially from Fort Fairfield’s new ambulance service.

The final budget that councilors approved in late June came to $6.9 million, with a deficit of $331,930, a decrease from the original projected deficit of $434,926. Powers credited that decrease with greater-than-expected revenues from the billing service the town uses for Medicare and Medicaid.

In September, the council approved a mill rate of 19.5 per $1,000 of property value, a decrease from 20.5 in 2020 and 25.0 in 2019. The town sets the mill rate every fall after knowing what the county’s and local school district’s portions of the taxes will be for that coming year. 

In past meetings, Powers and councilors have attributed increases in tax bills to the revaluation, not the budget or mill rate. If revaluations had been conducted more regularly, the tax bills would have more accurately reflected property values, she said.

During Wednesday’s council meeting, Libby pointed to the 2021 budget controversy as a reason not to establish an advisory committee. Many residents who reached out to her about budget concerns, she claimed, had received “misinformation” from The Taxpayer Group and other residents.

“I’m not against getting outside feedback, but I think that information should come from a consultant who has experience with municipal budgets,” Libby said. “Municipal budgets are different from business budgets. Why not spend time working with the department heads who know how to dig deep and find cost savings?”

Powers said that the ordinance’s language overrides her authority as town manager, and does not offer chances for discussion between herself, department heads and committee members.