FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — After the sticker shock of the 2020 Fort Fairfield property tax bills settled in for taxpayers, some with 25 percent or more increases, many long-time residents stood up to town officials in January.
Since that time, the number of disgruntled townspeople continues to grow as they fill previously spare meeting rooms to voice their concerns about taxes, what they call out-of-control town spending and inconsistent property assessments from a recent revaluation.
“The crowds are getting bigger, the line is getting longer and it’s not going away,” Fort Fairfield business owner and lifelong resident Kevin Pelletier said.
Nonetheless, town leaders say the residents are misinformed and if the property revaluations had been completed at more regular intervals instead of nearly 22 years ago, the taxes would have increased more gradually.
“If the reval had been done 15 years ago … if they had kept updating valuation, it would have been close to where it is now,” Town Council Chairman Mitch Butler said. “It would have been a gradual increase.”
Butler explained that 62 percent of what is collected in property taxes goes to the school, 31 percent to the town and about 6 percent to the county.
“If we cut taxes by 25 percent like some are asking, that would leave us about 6 percent to run the town,” Butler said.
For the previous six years, the town budget averaged $5,193,603, some years up and some years down. That’s why taxpayers were taken by surprise when the 2020-2021 town budget increased nearly $1.6 million or $6,885,634,with some property tax bills increasing more than 25 percent, by more than $1,000 for some.
“My husband Jim and I have lived in and paid taxes to our town of Fort Fairfield for 47 years. In all that time we have never complained about one thing to the town and have always gladly paid our taxes on time,” Sharon Ouellette said. “Property tax bills have climbed at a normal pace of a few percent each year until this year. This enormous increase of almost $1,000 on our bill doesn’t make any sense to us.”
While the town manager and town council point to the long overdue property revaluation as the reason for such a dramatic increase, Ouellette and others say the town is not spending taxpayer money wisely.
“The goal of a routine town revaluation is supposed to be to even out the tax burden fairly among the townspeople, not to make a pile of money for the town,” Ouellette said. “How is it possible that our town can increase their municipal budget by over $1 million or 20 percent in one year, and simply mail us the bill? This is just shameful. We are so discouraged.”
Many of the taxpayer concerns are focused on spending, especially as it relates to a nearly $1 million increase in the fire department and the new emergency medical service expenses.
But Town Manager Andrea Powers said the council voted unanimously at the 2019 December meeting to fund the Fort Fairfield Fire Rescue Department with a 15-year note.
“That note of $1,138,000 was voted to be applied for the start-up costs of the Fire Rescue Department for the remainder of the FY 2019-2020 budget and into the FY 2020-2021 budget,” Powers said.
In January, there were so many residents at the town council meeting slated in council chambers, they had to line up in the hall and take turns during the public comment period. In February, town officials had to move the meeting to the Community Center gym.
Several farmers, including Noah Yoder, the first Amish man to settle in Fort Fairfield, expressed concern in February about dramatic property tax increases on their farmland and buildings. In a letter, Yoder said he wondered if they would be able to afford to stay in the town.
Another farmer, John Griffeth, talked about how the pandemic hurt farms and the tax increase was rough.
“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,” Griffeth said. “After COVID we went from being in the best negotiating position to the worst since I have been farming.”
Griffeth explained that a property they purchased at auction for $150,000 from the town, after no one bid on it in several previous auctions, was valued at $600,000 in the revaluation. He explained he would never be able to sell that piece of land for that amount, but he is being taxed based on the valuation.
“Our tax bill from last year to this year went up a little over 25 percent,” Griffeth said.
And other farmers expressed similar concerns, with some wondering how long they could withstand the additional financial pressure of the tax increase.
Also in February, a group of taxpayers wrote to the town council asking councilors to consider bringing the town’s 20.5 mill rate down, more in line with the state’s 16.9 mill rate average.
“As everyone is aware, the town budget for 2020-2021 was approximately $6,800,000. That amount is about 20 percent more than the previous year. This was done without the taxpayers
being informed of the huge property tax increase that this would require. Many families in our town are facing extreme financial hardships due to this being a poor community with little employment, many of the citizens being elderly, and especially this year due to the pandemic,” the taxpayer proposal read.
The concerned taxpayers asked the council to meet and discuss a plan to reduce the municipal budget for 2021-2022, and to return the results of their meetings to the taxpayers in the March council meeting.
All of the seats in the Community Center gymnasium were filled at Wednesday night’s meeting, including about 10 Amish men representing the 41-family Amish community.
The town councilors did not address the taxpayer request and Council Chairman Butler opened the meeting by explaining how much he appreciates the town services and how there is too much misinformation in the community.
Pelletier said at the core of this, residents are worried about how their tax dollars are being spent, and whether their taxes will increase again in the near future.
“Fort Fairfield is a poor community,” he said. “Did we really need to buy two new ambulances? We could have shopped around and bought used to save money.”
Butler said the budget will stay about the same for the coming fiscal year.
“We as councilors do not want to vote to raise taxes,” Butler said in an interview on Thursday, again explaining that the school budget and the revaluation are the reason some taxpayers have such high bills this year.
Jeff Armstrong, who owns an engineering firm on Presque Isle Street, talked about the unfairness of the revaluation by comparing similar commercial land parcels in his neighborhood whose valuations are all dramatically different.
“It’s like they threw a dart at the wall and picked a number,” he said. “The town did not do their due diligence on this.”
In detailing his concerns, Armstrong said his .6-acre parcel on Presque Isle Street had been valued at $15,000 for nearly 20 years, after the revaluation it was valued at $47,400.
“That’s a 216 percent increase in the land,” he said.
Armstrong’s neighbor, with a .5-acre parcel that was valued at $4,800 before revaluation, increased to $12,400 after. Another parcel on the same street before revaluation was $12,000 and after it was $22,000. Another parcel decreased in value.
All the parcels are zoned commercial and they are all next to each other.
Butler agreed that there may be some problems with the revaluations and the town council is bringing the assessor back in the summer for people who have concerns.
After Wednesday’s meeting, several Amish men said that the Amish community contributes about $150,000 in property taxes to the town and they are concerned about how the increases in taxes will affect them. They explained that families pass on the farms to the younger family members, but they wonder how they will afford to pay the taxes.
“The town knew they would lose revenue from the energy plant and the potato processing plant,” Armstrong said. “They had time to prepare for this, and they didn’t. Many taxpayers still have questions and want to know if their taxes will increase in 2021-2022.”