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Strong Turnout for Property Tax Discussion at Town Council Meeting


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, February 24, 2021


FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine - Around two dozen people showed up for the February town council meeting at the Fort Fairfield Community Center gym.

   Governor Mills’ misguided guidelines of face masks and washing the handheld microphone after each use was vigorously enforced even though a study released by the U.S. CDC in May, 2020, which looked into the control of respiratory viruses, noted, “We did not find evidence that surgical type face masks are effective at reducing laboratory confirmed influenza, either when worn by infected persons or by persons in the general community to reduce their susceptibility.”  Of surface cleaning, the CDC found, “this intervention was not significant in reducing detection of influenza virus, and it had no major protective effect on acute respiratory illness.” (*citation at end of this article).

   The primary topic of interest at this regularly scheduled town council meeting was the excessive and seemingly arbitrary increase in property taxes after the recent town revaluation which concluded last Fall.

   At the same time property tax bills for some taxpayers increased at an alarming rate, citizens and businesses in town were suffering from a reckless, hyped-up over-response by the governor to a disease that has a fatality rate similar to seasonal flu after all of the politics and numbers-skewing are removed from the data.   This prompted a group of Fort Fairfield taxpayers to do their own research on the revaluation and present their findings in the Fort Fairfield Journal (January 27, 2021, p. 1) and to the council at their January town council meeting (Fort Fairfield Journal, February 10, 2021, p. 5).  

   After reviewing tax data for 2019 and 2020 obtained from the town (for a fee of $150), the taxpayer advocate group, composed of local Fort Fairfield taxpayers, found many properties increased in value by as much as three times while similar properties in the same area were barely affected. 

   Opening statements for this council meeting were from Fort Fairfield town manager, Andrea Powers. 


[all quotes hereafter transcribed from the town’s video feed of the meeting which had high digital compression which caused substandard audio quality, but I did the best I could - editor]


   “You are likely seeing or hearing a lot of misinformation circulating about the town's fiscal condition, which seems to be the language federally, state and locally around the country,” said Ms. Powers during her opening statements. “Allow me to share some facts to straighten this out.  ReEnergy was never 50 percent of our tax base.  In fact, in 2018 they were only 12.94 percent of that year's taxes.  In 2019 they were 12.56 percent.  We were not $53,000 over budget last year, we were actually $67,749 under budget.  We have collected taxes for this year.  We have not yet had a citizen refuse to pay their taxes and in fact, we are at $254,948.67 more in the collection of taxes than we were last year.”

   Ms. Powers then remind the audience members in attendance of their responsibility in local town government, “The town council is our legislative body for the town of Fort Fairfield.  The citizens vote in our council and what the council votes for affirmatively, stands.   We have a process that must be followed.  Federal and State law, charter ordinances and town policy all make up that process.”

   “We hold April and May public budget hearings every year and every year have only maybe one or two citizens that participate in those hearings.  Council then votes in June on the budget for  that fiscal year,” explained Ms. Powers to the audience.  “I would highly encourage you to attend the budget hearings and learn about the process and your municipal government.  Our town charter/town council/ town manager form of government has been in effect since March 15, 1976.  We are far better prepared today than we were three years ago to address COVID-19 fiscal impact.  Imagine the loss of revenue last year due to unpaid tax revenue and decreased revenue sharing along with a non payment of excise tax debt had not been reduced by our strong fiscal management.  Or, if we had not set aside an investment in our reserve account in 2019.  We would have been bankrupt - as many communities across this state were through COVID-19.” 

   “We cannot overspend our budget.  We must maintain what council has approved.  There may be situations that happen throughout the year that we have no control over.  We can only replace what we have fiscally available to us and what has already been voted on and approved by council.  That is why our reserve accounts for each department are so important.” 

   “We have not mismanaged the town's fiscal portfolio, we have strengthened it.  As a reminder, we brought the 2020 deficit down without any cuts in service.  We will continue to make investments to grow our budget.  This doesn't get shared as often as it should be and sometimes it is misreported by some who might not be educated in our process.  Fort deserves a clear picture of our fiscal condition.  We ended last year's fiscal budget $67,749 under budget even with a final total loss of revenue of $187,537.  The department heads worked extremely hard to reduce their overall costs.”

    She elucidated some of the cost savings town administration was able to realize;  “We constantly strive to find ways to save our citizens money by researching the best possible pricing for each purchase.  Whether it's for pallets of paper at a cost savings of $400 or an OshKosh snow blower, as we were able to purchase for $2,400 - a piece of equipment that sells at $125,000.  That's a savings of $122,600 all to provide better service to our community.  We also look for ways to provide better service to our citizens.”

   Ms. Powers also noted how the recently formed, full-time Fort Fairfield Fire/Rescue service is doing.  “A full time fire and rescue department has brought Fort Fairfield a staff that is available 24/7.  Always having staff and equipment available to respond in emergencies, there were calls in the past that went unanswered.  Now we have the capability to handle multiple calls at home.  Average time for 911 answer until patient contact is six minutes or less.”

   Fort Fairfield was forced to come up with a solution to an ambulance service three years ago when Crown Ambulance, based in Presque Isle - and the only regional ambulance service provider in the area, announced they would no longer be providing a regional EMS service to the area.  Since then, Fort Fairfield has established their own in-house EMS fire/ambulance service which features advanced cardiac life support, pediatric advanced life support, pre-hospital trauma life support, advanced medical life support, and emergency pediatric care.  Fort Fairfield also has a critical care paramedic and a flight certified paramedic on their EMS staff.  Augmenting the previously un-staffed volunteer fire department, all of the FF Fire/Rescue full time and per diem staff are cross-trained in both fire fighting and EMS/paramedic skills to be able to cover both types of emergencies for the least amount of cost.

   The build-up of the ambulance/EMS service - from nothing - cost the town an initial outlay of around $1 million which was funded through a combination of a bank loan and long term vehicle leases.

   The financial trifecta of a devastating COVID-19 response by the governor, coupled with a brand new ambulance service going online was completed with a town-wide revaluation which adjusted property values for some retirees on fixed incomes to unsustainable levels while reducing some property taxes for others.  Any of these major events happening by themselves would have been bad enough, but in Fort Fairfield, they all happened at the same time.

   “I don't think any of us could have predicted the many challenges we have faced this past year and continue to face,” said Ms. Powers.  “But, we all know the town of Fort Fairfield comes together to support each other during tough times and indeed we have.  This past year has been shaped by many global, national, state and local public health and economic emergencies.  Through it all we have continued to support our community and implement council's policy priorities to the very best of our ability.  We were able to maintain services to our citizens, maintain our staffing without any furloughs or termination of jobs.  There were many discussions with department heads and council on how to hold back the approved budget to get through 2020.”

   But, it was the town-wide revaluation that has drawn the ire of the local taxpayers in Fort Fairfield.  The last time the town’s property was valuated town-wide was 1997.   “With our new assessment, our citizens have a more stable valuation; values that are based on sales of property in Fort Fairfield,” said Ms. Powers. “Prior to the reval, the State was holding back reimbursement and discounting our value since we were not up to date on actual sales amount for the property in Fort Fairfield. Your homes are better represented at truer value for greater insurance purposes, home equity loans and selling value than ever before.  Now there is a greater representation of a fair and just tax base across the community.”

   During public comment period, a letter read on behalf of Noah Yoder, whose family moved to Fort Fairfield in Aug 2007.  They have thoroughly enjoyed their time in Fort Fairfield and Now 41 Amish Families have moved into the Fort Fairfield/Easton area, greatly increasing the tax base with increased buildings and other traditional farming infrastructure .

   Mr. Yoder's letter reads, in part, “As time went by we found that Fort Fairfield had been everything, and more, that we hoped for.  We learned to trust that our tax money was spent wisely and clearly; and people in charge had as much concern on how they spent the taxpayer's money as if they were spending their own... However, something is changing.  Our taxes have gone up dramatically, we are now no longer sure that we can stay here and turn over our farm to the next generation.  Traditionally, we would build a small retirement house on the farm for us to live out the rest of our lives while the family takes over the rest of the farm buildings.  Taxes as high as they now are, when we add the retirement home, the young couple will have to either find a higher paying occupation or they cannot afford to live here.  I hope that there is a way that taxes can be reduced to a sustainable level.”

   John Griffeth Jr. spoke on behalf of his family and Griffeth Farms, one of the larger family farms now in Fort Fairfield.    He noted how before the COVID response hit, his farm was in the best negotiating position he'd seen in his 26 years in the business.  “After COVID, we went from being in the best negotiating position to the worst, since I've been farming,” said Griffeth.  “As all businesses here and people in the food business, especially, have felt, we got squeezed a lot and our budget did not end up the way we expected.”

   Griffeth noted how his family's farmland and property had their taxes increased from the previous year to the current year by over twenty-five percent while their farming operation, operating like most other growers nationwide, was at only 3 percent margins.  They, like many others suffered a huge loss in sales due to the nation-wide volume cut for their agricultural products as governors across the U.S.  recklessly and irresponsibly shut down entire segments of their economies over a hyped-up virus which is no more fatal than seasonal flu.  “When that happens in our business you have to make things come on the bottom line.  In order for us to do that, the kids had to work all during COVID with no pay.  We had to tighten our belts up.”

   Referencing the 12.56 percent portion of the tax base ReEnergy previously made up in Fort Fairfield, Griffeth said relying on the rest of the people and businesses to make up the difference was very unfair, “If they only represented 12 percent of the tax base, pushing off twenty-five percent to the people that are already here is very unfair and I think fiscally very irresponsible.”

   He also said he feels like he's gotten less services this year for the increased money due to the schools being arbitrarily shut down for the last quarter of the school year, last Spring. 

   Griffeth wasn't impressed with the town touting a mill rate reduction on one hand while increasing property valuations on the other.  “Whether you raise the mill rate or you raise the assessments, it's all the bottom line; it's just a different way of saying the same thing twice.”

   He also wasn't sure what kind of magical formula was used to ascertain values on buildings in Fort Fairfield since he and his brothers went to two different auctions on the old Dale Pearce/Weatherhead potato building; where it was initially offered for a minimum bid of $750,00 with nobody showing up to bid except the Griffeths - who did not bid. It then dropped down a year later to a minimum bid of $500,000 with nobody showing up to bid except for the Griffeths, who did not bid.  About a year and a half later, he and his brothers were finally offered the building by the bank holding the note and bought the property for $150,000.  “After six years, I figure the market value of a building is what somebody was willing to pay for it,” said Griffeth.  “We picked it up for $150,000 and put that much more again into it just to keep the building standing, because it was built in 1963.” 

    The town of Fort Fairfield now has that building assessed at a value of $600,000 - way above what the market was willing to pay in Fort Fairfield even over the past few years.  “I can tell you right now, if we ever go broke and there's another auction and the minimum bid is $600,000 and we're not farming anymore, guess who's going to be at the auction - nobody,” said Griffeth.

   Local businessman, Kevin Pelletier spoke about all of the letters he was receiving from concerned citizens about the high taxes even though he is not in a position to do anything about the taxes.   “For some reason I'm getting letters.  What I'm seeing and what I'm hearing is a lot of people are complaining about the spending that's going on.  It's out of control...The way it looks, the spending is out of control,” Pelletier told the council.  “We all here in Fort Fairfield want an ambulance, we want police and fire [protection].  I think there's ways of getting that that wouldn't cost the town as much money as it's costing us.  We could also get our taxes down.”

   He advised that businesses, or even families, who want to move to a town will always consider the tax burden before making a decision to move there and that Fort Fairfield isn't being proactive enough to encourage people to establish themselves in town.  “I don't see anything being done here to generate tax flow in our town, or anything that's being done to bring jobs to our town.  I don't see that happening here.  I compare it to a church that doesn't have any youth - the church will die off.  If we don't get a hold of this and somehow get these taxes down, what we have here, I don't know where we're going to be in five or ten years.  We as a town council and citizens here in Fort Fairfield, we need to pull together.  We've got to look at the way we're spending our money and the way we're taxing our people.  We need to do it, otherwise we're going to sink the boat.”

   Paul Reed, who has lived in Fort Fairfield for the past ten years admitted the recent town revaluation was needed and long overdue, but he found the process to be pretty difficult from a taxpayer vantage point.  “There was not a lot of opportunity to speak with the assessors at all, it kind of went to dead air.  I left multiple voice mails, sent Emails.  Finally, we get a Google Earth reassessment that ended up going up after that conversation.  So, even with the reduced mil rate, I've had $8,000 added to my tax bill this year.”

   He then asked the council a rhetorical question (questions are not allowed during public comment period); “What assurances do we have as taxpayers that that mil rate is going to stay consistent? And that a year, two or three years from now we're not going to continue to see repetitive increases in taxes because that's not sustainable.”

   “Is there something we can do as a council, looking at redundant services, partnering with other communities?  Are there things we can do as a town that we can partner with other communities to build in economies of scale?  Really, just making sure that we have a balanced budget.  I think it would be helpful to get a little more insight into how money is being spent.”

   Phil Christenson spoke on behalf of the people who have property around Munson Pond who believe the revaluation was not properly done on their properties.  “Based on criteria that doesn't really apply to Munson Pond situation; [the reval] didn't consider impacts of shoreline zoning.  It was unfair for seasonal properties that have no access in the wintertime.  I think the biggest problem is the criteria was not evaluated before they started making their assessments.  So, that should just be fixed.  I've worked in several states and have had several jobs and any time I made a mistake, I had to fix it.  I suggest [the council] do something to fix this around Munson Pond.  It's a huge difference between the year-round, modern home and the cottage that has shoreline that has little value for any other purpose to be developed or changes.  I think the biggest problem was most people were not available when the assessors came to their place.  I think a lot of these problems could have been solved if there had been appointments made and either the land owner, the property owner or one of their representatives could have been there when the assessor was there.  I have nine properties, I was there for one of [the assessments]; all of the others had errors in their assessment.  It would have solved a lot of problems if somebody would have made appointments.

   Lonnie Ramisch kept his mother's house at Munson Pond and saw the taxes increase by $1,400.  “I know taxes have to go up, but fourteen hundred dollars is ridiculous,” Ramisch told the town council.

      Keith Thibeau II, a sixth generation potato farmer in town, where he and his brother and dad operated a farm on the Strickland and West Limestone Roads.  “This year, after seeing our taxes, we're up 35% on 300 acres.  I'm just a little discouraged, you know.  Like other people have touched on, we had to tighten our belts over the past year.  Just seeing some of the stuff that goes on kind of opened my eyes a little bit. 

   A letter was read on behalf of the taxpayers in Fort Fairfield that proposed Fort Fairfield's mil rate of 20.5% be reduced for up to half of Fort Fairfield taxpayers to the Statewide average of 16.9% in the next fiscal year.  However, the town is restricted by State guidelines as to how far down they can go with their mil rate, based on a complex bureaucratic formula taking into account valuation, population and budget.  For the current fiscal year, the Fort Fairfield town council adopted a mil rate from the lower end of that range, which bottomed out at 20.1% as the lowest state-allowable mil rate for Fort Fairfield.  So, in order for the town council to go lower than 20.1% would require a change in the State's mil-rate formula at the legislative level in Augusta.  Ergo, this idea should be taken up with Fort Fairfield's representative to the Maine legislature, David McCrea - not the Fort Fairfield town council, who are powerless to change it.


*U.S. CDC publication, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol 26, No. 5, May, 2020