FORT KENT, Maine — The Town Council took action Monday night to help lessen this year’s property tax impact on residents but left the town with virtually no room for budgetary overruns for the rest of the fiscal year.
By setting the annual mill rate at 14.333, the council anticipates raising only the funds needed for the municipal budget, the local share of the school budget and the county tax, with nothing left over to place in a reserve account as overlays.
Fort Kent’s current mill rate is 14.
By statute, the maximum mill rate the council could have set was 15.049, and some on the board felt that might have been a more practical approach as it would have resulted in a $153,800 overlay.
“I would support setting the mill rate at 15,” Councilor Paul Berube said, adding that a higher mill rate this year could help lessen the shock of additional rate increases next year in the wake of declining revenues. “Let’s talk about next year’s budget.”
Accepting a mill rate that would generate an overlay, Town Manager Don Guimond said, would help offset those anticipated revenue shortfalls, including potential decreases in state revenue sharing to towns.
“Other towns are faced with these same shortfalls and they are not raising their rates,” Councilor Darlene Dumond said.
“We need to send a message,” Berube said.
That message, he contended, would be directed at the SAD 27 board of directors which Berube and at least one other council member said is creating budgets out of control.
The coming SAD 27 budget of just more than $10 million contains a $200,000 increase in the local share.
Because the school and town operate on different fiscal years, Guimond said, taxes collected in the current year meet only half of the current school budget.
“You have to figure [that] it only includes half of the school’s increases,” he said. “The thing is, if you allow for an overlay it would cover the second half of the increase if they keep their budget flat next year.”
Flat funding, Berube said, is something the SAD 27 board has not done.
“We need to send a message to the school board,” Councilor Joel Desjardins said. “They need to know how dire things will be next year.”
Fifty-four percent of every tax bill in Fort Kent goes toward education.
“We need to get together and work with them,” Desjardins said.
“Everyone has to streamline operations,” Dumond said, “And that means schools, too.”
At the same time, she said, local taxpayers are stretched to the limit with their own expenses and she did not feel placing a bigger burden on them to generate a larger overlay was a good idea.
“Something needs to change to get the message across: We either pay now or pay later,” Berube said.
“That doesn’t mean every taxpayer has to pay for that message,” Dumond said.
When it came to the overlay, Desjardins said he did not feel right deliberately collecting more funds than absolutely necessary to run the town.
“Tagging on extra tax, I just don’t like taxing for what we don’t need or have budgeted,” he said. “I’d rather see all the departments make a concentrated effort to conserve.”
Councilor John Bouchard agreed.
“I understand what you are saying about paying ahead so we don’t get hit so hard next year,” he said. “But then it can be much too easy for people to say, ‘The money is there, so why pass any in the future?’”
Local taxes will increase in any case because of the state’s funding cut to the Homestead Exemption program.
Berube fears further cuts should a referendum pass in November that would lessen excise taxes by 40 percent — an $800,000 hit for Fort Kent.
Dumond was convinced that every resident, regardless of the mill rate, would feel the seriousness of the fiscal situation facing the town and school district.
Her motion for the 14.333 rate passed 3-2.
Guimond said tax bills should be in residents’ mailboxes next week.