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Fort Fairfield Council Approves $7.04 Million Budget for FY 21/22


But, Still Showing A Budget Shortfall of $331,000

By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, June 30, 2021

   After three public hearings on the town's Fiscal Year 21/22 budget, the Fort Fairfield town council voted at their regularly scheduled town council meeting to wait an additional week before deciding on the budget.

   At the special town council meeting on June 17, the council did finally vote 4-1 to approve the town's $7,041,920 budget even with a $331,930 deficit.  The core of the debate is surrounding the cost of the newly created full time Fire/EMS service the town created last year which accounts for a little over a million dollars of the budget, but less than the public works department's $1.2 million share of the town's money.

   During the public comment period of this second budget vote meeting, David Dorsey rose to speak.  “Before I get into the budget I want to make sure everybody in this room understands my philosophy as it relates to the ambulance service.  I support, a hundred percent, a good quality ambulance service.  Look, I'm 80 years old, I'll need it before you guys.  But, you've got to understand, this is a small community, lack of revenue, got some hard knocks.  We need a Chevrolet, not a Cadillac, said Dorsey.  “I've been here a couple of times and I've heard our ambulance service costs per capita of thirty five dollars or a hundred dollars.  We were fortunate to have some people that did some background work and did some surveys and contacted the various communities and, I got to tell you Fort Fairfield is ten times bigger than thirty five dollars.  Based on the first budget we had, that was proposed for the 21/22 year, it would cost you people - or us - $332.00.  You don't think that's a lot, but if you take a look at Caribou, they're paying a hundred bucks.  If you look at Presque Isle, it's seventy six bucks.  So, I don't know what happened, I was never involved.  I don't know what degree the council was in this; I don't know how we got in this mess, but we got to get out of it.  This town cannot afford that.” 

You've got to go back to the drawing board and get somebody that's independent, that has some knowledge of that and try to rework this program. 

Dorsey was referring to research conducted by Sharon and Jim Ouellete, private inhabitants in Fort Fairfield who hold no elected office, but represent an ad hoc committee called the Taxpayer's Group of Fort Fairfield.  Their research showed that the cost to provide ambulance service in Fort Fairfield for the upcoming year will be $332 per person.  That contrasts with the City of Caribou's ambulance service which comes in at $99 per person and the City of Presque Isle's ambulance service which costs that community just $76.00 per person.  The town of Houlton provides ambulance service to its inhabitants and those in surrounding communities at a cost to those communities of just $74.00 per person.  This makes Fort Fairfield's costs more than three times the second most expensive service in the area.

   “We need an ambulance service, but we're going to be fighting over this for a long time if you don't adjust, I'll tell you that,” said Dorsey.  I don't know how involved the council was in reviewing and chasing down the supporting facts that you looked at when you made your decision.  I don't know that.  But, I just got to assume that something got by somehow.”

   “In the budget there's a couple of things that bother me and I saw the new one I just hadn't had a chance to read it but as it related to income from your ambulance service, the one we looked at a week ago, it showed income this year of $257,000. I challenge that one to start with because the young man that's here said during his discussion on his department that he had two hundred thirty one cases [calls] and he only picked up $800.  So I go back and look at last year and you're showing $169,000 in income [for the ambulance service].  Why did the income keep rolling in last year, but it stopped?  You got $800 from January 1 to June 31 - five months.  And now tonight I looked at your new budget, the only thing that's changed on it is you raised the [proposed] income from the ambulance service.  It's now what, $408[,000] dollars.  I don't know how this is coming in.  I'd like somebody to tell me because if you haven't got any money in the last five months, why would you get any money the rest of the seven?”

   Town manager, Andrea Powers responded,  “We were not a full time fire/ambulance service prior income that came in was rolling income that came in.  We now have a billing agent who does that for us and there is a series of processes that you have to go through, which is what we've discussed, with Medicaid and Medicare in order to be reimbursed by those entities and we are about to get a rather large sum of money.  It is in the billing process, it has been sent through.  Just as I told you last night, she grossly underestimated the amount of revenue that we would be bringing in on a monthly basis and that's why numbers have changed for you moving forward for next year.  That is still a very conservative number on revenue but given the amount of time that it takes for us to receive those revenues, we kept it at a very conservative number for next fiscal year.  So, that's the change in the revenue that you see.  The reason we haven't received it is because it hasn't been sent to us but it does not mean that it was not billed and it does not mean that it will not come to us.”

   Powers then further explained the amounts that have already been billed - but not yet received - by the ambulance service.  “In the month of May alone, we billed $31,493.40, just in May alone and we're waiting for all of that revenue to come in to us.  The only revenue that we have received to date is the very first one that we put in with them in a short amount of time in August.”   Going back to last year, she noted,   “For September, $20,064.10; October, $22,494.20; November, $24,580.70 - this is all money we're waiting for to come back to us - $23,467.90; $33,466.50; $21,711.30; $32,138.50; $19,787.50; and then again, for May, $31,493.40.  So, we are waiting to collect quite a bit of money.  It is coming to us, we've just been told we need to be patient.  But, now that we have been awarded/allowed to bill with Medicaid/Medicare, it should be a much faster process moving forward.” 

   Gary Sirois then rose to speak.  He thanked the council and town manager for putting in the time on the budget and also thanked Jim & Sharon Ouellette who, as concerned citizens not associated with town government, put in a lot of their own time and money to research the data on ambulance services in the area and put that information out to the public on behalf of the Taxpayers Group of Fort Fairfield.

   “The cost per capita on the ambulance service; it's not sustainable, said Sirois.  “Now, we've come a long way and we need to balance the budget.  Many ideas have come forth, many have been forwarded to the council and so far we have not reached the goal of a balanced budget.”

    In order to augment this year's budget, the town is including as income federal COVID relief money and an increase in State aid - both one-time bonus money to help make up for the economic carnage caused by government mismanagement and overreaction to the left wing media-created COVID-19 fiasco at the State and Federal level.

   “The one time revenue that's in this year's proposed budget is going to disappear.  The Fed money and the increase in the State allocation is going to be reduced or disappear.  So, next year, you're going to have this very same problem  without that income,” said Sirois.  “Lastly, the EMS budget is a killer in my mind.  I know the council approved the purchases of the ambulances and setting up the department.  I realize that.  I question how much homework was done prior to the presentation to the council.    If Sharon and Jim Ouellette can find out what it costs in other communities to provide the service, how come you didn't know about that before you bought those ambulances? 

   Ms. Powers interjected, “They actually did because we had representatives that came from Caribou and Presque Isle that came and spoke.” 

   “Is there a way to contract with Presque Isle city and Caribou city and take a ride on their shirt tails and cost a hundred or less per capita?  I implore the town council to direct the town manager to explore that option,” said Sirois. 

   Ms. Power responded that those options had already been explored.

   Town council chairman, Mitch Butler said the council decided to put the citizens of Fort Fairfield first. 

   Sirois then queried Mr. Butler; “When Presque Isle [TAMC] serviced us, where was the ambulance based, mostly?”

   Butler responded, “Presque Isle.”

   Sirois then clarified, “Quoggy Joe,” in reference to the Ski Center at the Fort Fairfield/Presque Isle town line.  “Day after day after day when I went by they were there.  How far away is that?”

   Butler then further elaborated, “Gary, when we had the ambulance service here, sitting in this building, it took twenty minutes to get from here to the border, they were toned out two or three times and sat there and finished their supper, this is why, we're looking at the citizens of Fort Fairfield's safety and they cannot do that when they're sitting down eating lunch.” 

    Sirois then reiterated that he didn't think the town could afford the ambulance service as it is currently structured.  “I ask you to ask your town manager to explore some options.  You don't have to do it, but you can explore the options to see what the options are.  I would strongly recommend disbanding the whole EMS department, selling the ambulances and contracting with Presque Isle and/or Caribou or both.  That's what I would recommend.  And if you did your homework prior to buying those ambulances, you would probably agree with my findings.” 

Town councilor, Mark Babin then made a motion to accept the proposed budget as it was most recently presented.  The motion was seconded by town councilor, Melissa Libby. 

   “We all care, we're all headed in the same direction.  We all want the same thing.  We want the best for our community, we want the best services, without having our taxes increase,” said Libby.   “I think with this budget, as it sits, that that can be accomplished.  I think going any lower on the budget is going to affect services.  I have looked over every single line of every single department and checked all of the things that are being purchased and have been purchased in the budget and I don't know if everybody has had the opportunity to do that but I have.  In order to operate, we have to have funds to do so.  We cannot do what we're doing without it.” 

   She agreed that there are things that need to continue to be worked on.  “I agree having an independent consultant come in and look at our EMS ambulance service, if nothing else because it's a new department and we're learning.  Our fire department and ambulance is doing a phenomenal job and there has been a ton of work put in.” 

    Town Councilor, Scott Smith was a little more circumspect.    “I think we should be having some conversations involving the town manager, some of the council, and forming a few citizens just to explore and talk about this ambulance service because I do believe the per capita is a little high.  Are there things that we can do?  I don't know.  If we had the conversations and the citizens were involved, and saw that we're doing the best that we can that would take a lot of anxiety away.  It's just simple conversations.  Real simple.”

   But, Smith's primary concern was the reliance on the one-time COVID relief money to help pay for general operating expenses of the town.  “But my concern with this budget is you're relying heavily on one-time money and I'm looking at $737,155.  That's not going to be there next year, most likely, and then we're going to have to come up with that if we continue as we're going.  We can't do that.  It's too much.  You're going to have [to cover] another eight hundred thousand dollars, maybe a million dollars for the budget next year and that's going to hit the taxpayers real hard that are upset already.  I don't know what to suggest.  Federal funding is not going to work because we're going to rely on that money and that money is going to be gone.  It's going to pay the bills this year and it won't be there next year.  So, you're going to have to dig deeper into people's pockets or make cuts.  Nobody wants cuts.  We don't want to lose our ambulance service.  Can we find tune it? I don't know.  Can we have conversations?  Yes, we can. 

   Town councilor, Bob Kilcollins said of all the local taxpayers who talked to him directly, an overwhelming majority support the ambulance service as it currently stands.  “Seventy five percent of all the people that came to me that had any discussion on the ambulance and EMS was for it.  I can honestly say twenty five percent was negative.  As holding a chair on the town council, you do the best you can do for the decision that we get from you people.  After a certain amount of time, discussion and input from all sides we voted for the best of the community it was to give an ambulance service and EMS knowing that it wasn't going to be easy.  I have looked over the numbers and it's been a miracle that you took this EMS and fire department and put it where it is today.  I, at one time, had my doubts.  It's not over.  I think there's room, I would like to have this conversation three years from now and we'll all be better run numbers, figures where we stand.  I know, looking after the best interests of the community, it's my job to give the majority of the community what they want under the circumstances that we can afford.”

   Town councilor, Mark Babin noted how the EMS service seems to be the primary focus of the community, moving forward.   “We've established a plan, we're moving forward with it and that same time, it's costing us some money to do that.  It's a service we need.  It's not a want, we need this service.  Again, looking a year, or as Bob said, three years from now and having this conversation we can tweak,” said Babin.  “I've been talking to people also who recognize the need and they recognize also that if we can work at cutting costs but at the same time still providing the need or the service that we have.  That's what I look at today.  A big thank-you to all that have put in a lot of time, a lot of hours in this and we appreciate the feedback.  I would say a thank-you to Sharon, your work has not gone unnoticed.  It's given us stuff to look at so that we can tweak.  We may not have gone line for line but it's given us the information we need, or some of the information, to be able to work at it, so we've cut back a lot and I'm sure that as we progress in the years to come we'll continue to move forward and the thing, we move forward.  I think we may be forgetting one thing it's that things change.  We mentioned the one time money and whatever, things change.  What will happen between now and next year?  What could happen positively for the community of Fort Fairfield?  We don't know that.  We're judging from this circumstance, or where we're at right now. 

   Council chair, Mitch Butler had the last word before the vote.  “I look at my past experience.  I understand with the taxes and stuff like that, I pay the taxes also and when I see the people out there needing a service, when the ambulance service [TAMC] pulled out of here, I think we did the community a service by adding the EMT paramedics and firefighters, combined them together because you got two services out of one.” 

   Butler indicated he was not in favor or relying on other towns for ambulance services.  “I don't live in Presque Isle or Caribou and I don't expect services from Presque Isle or Caribou.  I'm all for mutual aid, I had mutual aid when I was on the police force, I've helped many police departments.  But I think we owe the citizens and visitors to the town of Fort Fairfield some type of service where if they get in an accident or need the fire department there's going to be somebody here in four or five minutes.  Not in ten or fifteen minutes, or not at their leisure.”

   The council voted 4-1 to approve the FY 22/22 budget with Scott Smith being the only dissenting vote.