The Fort Fairfield Public Library is shown in this 2015 file photo. Credit: Anthony Brino / BDN

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine – Fort Fairfield terminated its library director Thursday, putting library services at risk and prompting the chairperson of the board of trustees to resign.

Jennifer Gaenzle, who has served as director for the Fort Fairfield Public Library since 2014, will exit on Nov. 28.

The decision opposes a state rule that all libraries have a paid director so staff and patrons can access state services. As a result, the library could lose its state sponsorship, and Fort Fairfield could become the only town in Aroostook without a library director. The cuts are part of the down’s desperate moves to shore up its finances.

Fallout was immediate when Board of Trustees chairperson Shawn Newell resigned in protest.

“When you cut off funding, you cut off access. There are people who can only come on certain days of the week because it’s their only day off,” Gaenzle said.  

Those people would lose access to inter-library loans, historical records, genealogy resources and more, she said.

Under state law, the Maine Library Commission sets standards, which specify all libraries, no matter how small, must have a permanent paid director to administer services, even if they receive a stipend instead of municipal funds.

Councilors voted 3-to-2 Thursday to terminate Gaenzle and rely on two part-time employees instead. They will also cut library hours from five to three days per week.

The Maine Library Commission will not close the facility, but without a director it could lose its sponsorship as a state library. That means the library could lose access to state-funded inter-library loan programs, online research, ebooks and genealogical services.

The changes would negatively affect local residents who use the library, Gaenzle said.

The library is now open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Councilors did not specify when reduced hours would start.

Interim Town Manager Dan Foster proposed dropping the library’s budget from the $135,000 approved in June to $49,059, only $400 more than the budget from the town’s 1990-91 fiscal year.

That amount won’t even cover the building’s yearly heating expenses, Gaenzle said.

Foster and councilors who voted for the changes justified their decisions based on the town’s financial situation.

A recent audit revealed Fort Fairfield had only $199,000 in the bank as of June 30, compared with $946,000 on that same day in 2020. The town went from having no short-term debt in June 2020 to being $1,275,000 in debt in August. The situation is so dire that Aroostook County Commissioners granted the town a two-month extension for its tax bill.

Foster took the town’s temporary helm after former manager Andrea Powers resigned. He blamed the town’s excessive spending on a new ambulance service that started in 2020. The fire and emergency services department’s budget was $1.3 million in 2021 and $1.7 million in 2022, compared to only $140,000 four years ago.

For two years, residents have protested budget increases. The most recent brought the town’s mill rate from 19.5 in 2021 to 26.5 this year. Foster promised to slash departmental spending.

The library cuts can save nearly $60,000 this year, he said.

But Gaenzle and the library’s board of trustees have said they cannot operate without a director or sufficient budget.

Newell was not immediately available for further comment Friday, but confirmed that he sent his resignation letter to Foster Thursday evening in protest of the council’s vote.

Councilor Melissa Libby, who voted against the library changes, said Gaenzle had offered to work part-time, cut her benefits and be the sole staff member.

Council member Mitch Butler, who also voted against the decision, suggested eliminating one of the part-time positions instead.

Foster would not change the recommendation, arguing services would suffer more if the facility had only one employee.

“I know what we need to do to get us back on financial footing and I cannot do that without causing pain and discomfort,” Foster said. “It’s not easy but something I’m willing and able to do if I’m allowed.”

Other small Aroostook libraries, including Fort Kent, Madawaska, Van Buren, Ashland, Washburn, Mars Hill and Limestone, still have directors despite reduced hours.

Despite facing major staff shortages, and a reduced municipal budget, Limestone, a town neighboring Fort Fairfield with roughly half the population, is still funding an interim librarian. The library remains open for at least six or seven hours five days a week, according to Interim Librarian Kristin Vines.

Councilors Kevin Pelletier and Jim Ouellette, who have long opposed budget increases, voted in favor of Foster’s proposal. Council Chair Robert Kilcollins joined them.