Interim Town Manager Dan Foster returned to Fort Fairfield on Sept. 19, 2022. The town council hired him to help solve the town’s financial issues. These problems started in 2019/2020. There is now a plan in place to solve them.
Foster agreed to come out of retirement to help out. He seemed to be the best choice for the job. He was town manager from 1998 to 2013. Foster said that he balanced the budget for 15 years. He agreed to come all the way from Florida because he was “born in Fort Fairfield…” he “loves Fort Fairfield…” and his “parents live here.”
But he had his work cut out for him. Foster printed out some information. There were unpaid loans to Katahdin Trust, Aroostook County and Tri Cities Landfill. By 2022/2023 Fort Fairfield only had $14,090 in the bank. That was a problem.
Fort Fairfield isn’t alone in this. A lot of Maine towns and cities have seen costs go up. But they did not have the money to cover them. The Portland Press Herald printed an article about this. The writer Scott Thistle pointed out in 2020 that “more than 400 towns across Maine…” have had to make “painful choices….” Balancing their budgets during this time was hard for them, too.
Over-spending has been one of the problems in Fort Fairfield. The library costs went from $120,169 in 2019/2020 to $135,269. The parks and rec department went up even more. But the pandemic and recovery were taking place.
The biggest cost was the new ambulance service. In the year 2018/2019, the fire department budget was $160,058. Then Fort Fairfield got its ambulance service. The next year the fire department budget exploded to $1,097,888.
As with many small towns, tough decisions had to be made. There would have to be budgets cut. Taxes would be raised. The full-time city employee jobs would be cut from 12 to seven. The recreation and library budgets would also be lowered. Foster says they are trying to keep the fire and police departments as untouched as they can. But even they are not immune. Police Chief Matt Cummings said they’re not buying new equipment this year. They are relying on part-time officers, too. The fire department is trying to sell its ladder truck. Fire Chief Mike Jalbert said they are working hard to do that.
Those who are hit the hardest might be the residents who pay property taxes. A house worth $100,000 last year had a property tax of $1,950. Now that same house is being taxed $2,650. Police Chief Cummings was asked how tax payers would be affected. He said, “Obviously, you exchange paying for some things with others.”
But according to Foster, there’s a silver lining. He believes that this program will bring the budget back in line. In addition, in two years there will likely be an extra $2,000,000. Then, he said, the tax rate can go back to normal levels.