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Voters Approve School 2017-18 Budget


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, June 7, 2017


   Article 14 of the MSAD #20 $6.1 million school budget passed with a 47-22 ballot vote last Tuesday.    All of the other articles on the school board’s budget passed easily by a show of hands, each with essentially the same vote spread of the taxpayers in attendance. Just twenty five people determined a tax increase for the 1,000 or so property tax payers in Fort Fairfield.  Put another way, the vote only needed 26 more people to show up and vote “No” to prevent a  $200,000 property tax increase.

  The mood of the crowd was so pro-tax and spend that one would have thought the board could have doubled their budget, asked the local taxpayers to front the whole $12 million and the voters in attendance would have still voted to approve even if it would have more than quadrupled their property tax bills. 

   Surely, Superintendent Tim Doak must be wondering why he cut $213,000 from the budget when it now looks like he could have gotten that, and a whole lot more. 

   At the elementary school there are two teacher per grade level.  “If you wanted me to cut teachers, I'm not sure where we'd cut them.  I can't cut them in the elementary, two teachers per grade level.  You can't have 38 kids in one classroom with one teacher.

   Interestingly, this writer attended Fort Fairfield schools in the same class as Superintendent Doak and at that time there were anywhere from 28 to 32 students per classroom and for the most part, teachers and students did just fine. 

   Doak also noted that in addition to cuts to schools for education at the State level, the teacher's retirement program now has to be funded entirely by the school district, with no help from the State.

   While many in the crowd were jubilant about paying more property taxes, some were not so excited.  Ivan Shapiro rose to speak in opposition to the increased load on Fort Fairfield taxpayers and addressed the audience; “I want to first thank the Superintendent for answering questions I had about how the board reaches the recommendations for each article.  I want to thank him for putting more information this year than we had last year and for promising to add more information next year so that when we look at the State board recommends we spend a certain amount of money we could better understand why.  I think that you would all agree that that's a good thing.  For me, because I don't really know at this point the basis for reaching the recommendation - for me, and because taxes are going up - I'm going to have to vote no on everything and I hope there are those here who agree with me that because we do not have all the information we cannot make a good, informed decision.”
A week prior to the budget hearing and vote the Fort Fairfield town council met with the MSAD #20 school board to discuss the budget.  Town councilman, John Herold noted that the increase of nearly $200,000 the school is asking for above what they're already getting is in essence an entire department of the town's budget.

   “Just for comparison, your asking for $199,500 extra over and above last year, that's the town's portion of it,” Herold noted to the school board.  “To put it in the town's perspective, the entire Fire Department is $129,000 budget for next year; the summer and winter road maintenance - plowing, potholes, pavement and everything else for the whole town - is $215,000; the whole recreation department is $156,000; the library is $82,000.  This is what the town is budgeting to run those particular sections.  You're asking for all of our road maintenance.  Just as a comparison, your asking for a library and fire department.  It's a tremendous burden on the taxpayers.  It's going to be somewhere around 2 mils.”

   Herold admitted he realizes the whole school operation is a lot more sophisticated and costly than running the town.  “Roads, schools, police and fire are the basic responsibilities of town government,” Herold told the school board.  “You can see as a proportion of what's going on, you're asking for a couple of complete departments - just as an increase.  At the same time, you're not the ones who have to raise the taxes.”

   Currently, the school is roughly 40 percent of the town's entire budget. 

   School board member, Amanda McLaughlin responded that the board understood the situation.  “We definitely thought about these things.  We understand it's difficult.  We know the situation that we're in.  We're not trying to ask for the world, we're really not.  But we really feel like at this point we're at our bare bones and we can't really afford to cut any other programs without it impacting our students, our young people and our community.  Hopefully we're going to instill education, values and a desire to want to stay here.”

  The numbers Doak is using for the budget shows a projected increase of $148.00 in property taxes per every $100,000 in home value.  “I kept looking at the $148 and it's like am I willing to pay another $148 in taxes,” said McLaughlin.  “Yes, I am.  I'm young, I have children, they're going to school here so that's easy for me to say but I did try to reach out to some people in the public to see what their opinions were.  I spoke with people that don't fall within the same group as me and I didn't hear anyone that would say no.”

   What McLaughlin failed to factor in as she's willing to pay an extra $148 per year on her property tax bill is that businesses in Fort Fairfield will also have to pay significantly higher taxes based on their respective valuations - and that can run into the thousands of extra dollars  Since businesses exist not to provide taxes, but to generate a profit, their prices will have to rise accordingly to offset the higher tax bills.  These higher prices are then passed on to consumers who at once have to pay higher property taxes and higher prices for goods and services in Fort Fairfield.  At the same time, the higher taxes make Fort Fairfield businesses even less competitive with similar businesses in neighboring towns, thereby decreasing their long-term viability.

   None of this was considered or discussed by the school board during their joint meeting with the town council.

   John Herold then brought up the fact that people who are on fixed incomes will also be hit with higher property taxes, and they're the least able to pay.  “Another problem you've got of course is you've got I think a large number of people who are on Social Security or various forms of fixed income, various forms of government subsidies and those amounts are not increasing. “

   He also noted how renters will also be hit with a property tax increase in a roundabout way.  “Even if you're a renter, your landlord pays property tax on the place you rent and your rent needs to reflect that.  So, it doesn't matter if you own a house or not, you're still going to get hit by it.”

   Many people have their heart strings tugged by voting to approve an increase to the school budget, while they simply aren't in a position to be able to afford the extra cost.  “On the one hand, the low to moderate income folks in the community allow the school to get more money.  But at the same time you raise the mil rate you hurt them, and proportionately more,” said Herold.  “Not all of the cat food and dog food at the IGA is fed to cats and dogs.”

   Now that 25 Fort Fairfield voters have agreed to bring a property tax increase into existence and be applied to everyone in Fort Fairfield, the Fort Fairfield town council must come up with a way to raise the extra property taxes needed to fund the school system as per that public vote.  The town council will be discussing these increases at their June 21 meeting.  As always, the public is invited to attend, but rarely does.