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Fort Fairfield Town Council Considers Proposed Town Budget Committee Formation


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, January 26, 2022


   At their January 19, 2022 meeting, the Fort Fairfield Town Council considered the idea of forming a budget committee composed of local inhabitants selected by the Council for research and advice on the town budget - a job historically held by the town council alone.

   Fort Fairfield town manager, Andrea Powers informed the council the process for forming such a committee based on the town charter.  “After reviewing the charter, this would require an ordinance conforming to the adoption procedures of the charter.  According to section C-14(A) (1) of the charter, an ordinance is required in order to establish any town department, office or agency.”

   “A standing, i.e. permanent budget committee, would constitute a town agency and that its numbers would constitute town officials,” explained Ms. Powers.  “For these reasons, the charter envisions that such a body would be created only by ordinance adopted  by the council in accordance with the adoption procedures described in section C-15 of the charter.  The council is the municipal legislative body with the power to adopt ordinances.  But the council may do so only after publishing the ordinance using proper procedure and language and only after a public hearing on the ordinance is held at least 7 days following publication [see section C-15 (B) of the charter.]  An ordinance to establish a budget committee would not be eligible for an emergency ordinance under the procedures described in section C-16 of the charter.  The information submitted is from MMA's website which is sampled from one of their seventy information packets.  It does not follow our procedure or language according to our charter.” 

   Councilman, Mitch Butler moved that the council does not proceed with an ordinance for a budget committee.  The motion was seconded by councilwoman, Melissa Libby, which opened the motion for discussion.  “I just wanted to go over what this committee will be.  It will be an advisory committee.  A two year term is what we're looking for of individuals that would be on the committee,” said Libby.  “They would sit down, they would meet, they would discuss whatever they want to discuss then they would put together a report for us to review.  We [the council] would be the people who would choose who's on the committee.” 

   Ms. Powers then added in some legal advice she had received on the matter.  “This ordinance as proposed is for a town meeting form of government according to attorney Flewelling from MMA Legal and attorney Currier, our own town attorney.”

   The attorneys' suggestion that the proposed budget committee is a “town meeting” form of government is a pretty fast and loose interpretation.  According to Ballotpedia, a town meeting form of government is one in which all qualified voters of the municipality have an opportunity to assemble on a given day to debate and vote on policy decisions.  The town meeting usually occurs annually, but special meetings may be called more frequently. 

   In the immediate area, think of the towns of Westfield and Perham who use a town meeting form of government.  

  Differing from a Town Meeting form of government, the proposed Fort Fairfield budget committee would be composed of a short list of members selected from the community by the town council for the purposes of researching budget issues to present to the town council for a final decision by the town council.  Ergo, since all community members would not be part of the committee, and the committee would not possess the power to vote on specific budget issues with force of law or ordinance, the committee technically would not qualify as “town meeting” form of government.

   Fort Fairfield town council chairman, Bob Kilcollins said under this proposed committee, the Fort Fairfield Town Council would still have final say.  “If anybody wanted to pursue in-depth more of the budget that could be helpful for information only, and we're the ones using that information to educate ourselves more in-depth of a certain budget.  That is not allowing them [the proposed budget committee] to be using any powers other than information.”

   Butler disagreed with the need to form such a committee to begin with.  “In public meetings there's always a time for public comment period which we listen to the citizens and their comments before we make our decisions on the budget.  This has been a well-established practice that we have practiced for years and years and years... We as a council are the ‘budget committee.’  We've always been the budget committee throughout the years.  I've been on the council, this will be my fifteenth year, we've always listened to what our citizens tell us...This process has been working for many, many years; long before I was even sitting on the council.”

   Butler then diverged to arguments to reduce expenses and taxes held in last year's budget hearings.  “I see no sense in changing the charter and bringing on a committee that can say, well you can't spend money here, but we've got sixty-some percent of our budget we can't have no control over.  This is what they want, they want to reduce taxes, well I'm all for reducing taxes, but not at the expense of citizens.  We need emergency services, we need services in the town office and in order to get the tax rate down to what some people want, we have to eliminate all of our municipal [services] because we would still have to, by law, pay for the school department; we still have to, by law, pay for our county.  I'm tired of taking services away from the citizens.  We've talked about being a senior citizen community, they need the ambulance service, they need the fire department, they need the police department.”

   Councilman, Kevin Pelletier then rebutted Butler,  “Who's talking about taking services away, Mitch?  I've not heard anyone talk about taking services away.  I've not heard that.  Who's talking about taking services away in Fort Fairfield?”

   Butler responded,  “When you talk about reducing services - and that's what you're talking about last year because they didn't want the Fire Department, the emergency service, one person even said ‘get rid of emergency service.’”  

   “I have not heard that and I don't see where there would be any problem having an advisory committee,” retorted Pelletier, who was a outspoken opponent of the town budget last year and was recently elected to the Fort Fairfield Town Council on that platform.

   Kilcollins then tried to bring some clarity to the proposal.  “There's a lot of changes that we've got to look at as far as, you know, where's our money coming from?  What are we looking at for revenue sharing.  The inflation of everything that we're faced with every day.  We need all of the services that we have here.  I think to have more information through a broader time frame that we get the budget submitted if we had more people working on them up to when they're given to us to have a bigger idea of a more clearer picture, we can answer different questions easier, more clearer, know that it's been studied to the point where the dollar is working for us.  I'm for anything that we can get for support.” 

    “I don't think we need to change the charter,” Kilcollins continued.  “At what we're looking at right now, for what time it would take, I feel if we took this to our town attorney and have our town attorney review it and write up a language if it's there that would allow this without interfering with our town charter.  It would be worth a look.”

   The council voted to defeat Butler's motion not to proceed with the budget committee with a 3-2 vote with Libby and Butler the two council members voting not to proceed. Kilcollins, Pelletier and councilman, James Ouellette all voted No on the motion to defeat it and proceeded to enter a new motion to table the idea until next council meeting in February.  That motion to table passed 4-1 with Butler dissenting.