Fort Fairfield staff were surprised to learn about the town's financial problems, but not residents, who already questioned the town's increased spending.
Fort Fairfield Interim Town Manager Dan Foster (far right) listens to departmental updates during the latest Town Council meeting on Feb. 15, 2023, alongside councilors Keith Thibeau (left), Robert Kilcollins and Jim Ouellette and Town Clerk Neadra Dubois. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — As Fort Fairfield climbs out of more than $1 million in debt, staff and elected officials want to ensure the town never winds up in the red again.

Since September, Fort Fairfield has worked to eliminate $1,275,000 in short-term debt that was revealed after Interim Town Manager Dan Foster took office.

In that chaotic month, former Town Manager Andrea Powers resigned after officials learned the town had only $199,000 in the bank as of June 2022, compared with $946,000 two years earlier.

The news surprised staff, but not residents, who already questioned the town’s increased spending, especially on its new ambulance service. Now Fort Fairfield has hired a consultant to address what led to its financial turmoil and chart a better path forward, and the community is part of the solution.

Starting this spring, the town will work with Perham-based consultant Catherine Ingraham of CEI Consultants on the Fort Fairfield Community Empowerment Project. Ingraham will conduct interviews and workshops with town staff, hold a community forum and issue a final report with recommendations for elected officials and the future town manager.

“This is the first step for us to look at where we’ve been and how we can move forward,” Foster said.

Fort Fairfield will pay Ingraham $2,500 for her work, starting in March and ending with a final report in July. Ingraham wants to help the town craft a more community-oriented approach for the future, similar to that of other Maine towns she has assisted.

After the Verso paper mill closed in 2014, Ingraham assisted with Bucksport’s revitalization efforts by bringing residents and community leaders together. Through conversations, they shared ideas for the town and created vision statements that helped lead to significant downtown revitalization, she said.

But unlike Bucksport, Fort Fairfield’s challenges stem not from losing its largest employer, but from distrust that formed between residents and elected officials long before its debt came to light.

Months before Powers’ resignation, several town councilors had accused her of not providing accurate and timely budget information. After the council passed a surprise budget in June, members of a newly formed citizen budget advisory committee said their recommendations were ignored.

Councilors approved a $5,258,950 budget, with a projected revenue of $6,494,535. With county and school tax contributions of $277,209 and $2,203,432, respectively, included, the total town budget was $7,739,591.

The town’s new emergency medical services department took up $1.7 million of that budget, compared with $140,000 prior to its formation in 2020.

Fort Fairfield’s mill rate increased from 19.5 to 26.5 last fall. But the 19.5 rate was inaccurate due to an alleged tax assessing error, Foster said.  

Powers allegedly failed to point out that the town’s assessor had added state revenue sharing of $170,000 twice, which made it look like the town had enough revenue to support the ambulance service, Foster said in September.

The Community Empowerment Project will examine what led to such errors and miscommunication and how to build better trust once the town hires a new manager, Ingraham said.

“Folks feel like they need the opportunity to talk about what happened, not by pointing fingers but by looking at the bigger picture,” she said.

To kick off the conversation, residents can fill out an anonymous online form asking about Fort Fairfield’s qualities, what they want to see from elected officials and what can help the town transition to a stronger community.

Survey responses, staff input and residents’ comments at public events will all be considered, Ingraham said.

“[This project] is about creating an open dialogue,” Ingraham said. “We’re here to listen to what residents have to say and give them a chance to say what they want for the [town’s] future.”

Fort Fairfield hasn’t started searching for its new manager, but Foster wants the financial situation and future town goals to be clear beforehand.

Since Foster stepped in, Fort Fairfield has paid its school and county taxes, for which payment deadlines had been extended. The EMS department has sold one of two costly ambulances and wants to sell a ladder truck to reduce expenses. Other town departments like the library and recreation center have seen drastic cuts.

“In order to cover costs [for the next fiscal year budget], we’ll need to cut $400,000 from this current budget,” Foster told councilors at a Wednesday meeting. “If we do, I think we could put this $1 million loan behind us between this year and next year.”

In the meantime, Foster said the community needs to know the town’s future is in good hands. That’s where the Community Empowerment Project comes in.

“I feel good about this [project] because it involves us, the department heads and the community,” Foster said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the total town budget figure.