FORT KENT- At the town council meeting on Monday, July 9, town councilors narrowly passed a measure to adjust the 2012 mil rate to reflect the increase in the school budget approved by voters during the last school budget meeting and the approximately $10,000 of expenses associated with the fire department's services during the fire last winter that destroyed a block of historic buildings in downtown Fort Kent.
Councilors Jake Robichaud and Zach Voisine voted against raising the mil rate from 16.45 to 17.25 and an overlay of $20,283.50; Councilors Priscilla Staples, Tony Gauvin, and John Bouchard voted for it.
Councilor Robichaud said, "We can't raise taxes for our citizens."
Town Manager Guimond responded, "Taxes have already been raised by the voters at the town meeting."
Earlier in the meeting, Guimond reminded councilors that the town council doesn't decide fiscal matters for the town residents, voters do.
"Power doesn’t rest with the council or the school board, it rests with the voters," he said.
Discussion turned to the extremely poor turnout of voters at the last town meeting and school board meeting.
Councilor Staples asked if the town could draw money from the reserve account to pay for the cost of mechanical repairs associated with the March Main Street fire's expenses. Guimond said the town can only use reserve account money for purchases such as the acquisition of new equipment, not for maintenance and repairs on existing equipment.
An audience member asked what the total amount of unpaid taxes in Fort Kent was this year. Guimond responded that they were lower this year than the previous year, although the numbers tended to stay fairly consistent.
The audience member spoke out against raising the mil rate, and said, "We are driving people out of town."
He said the number of empty houses in Fort Kent was due to the increase in property taxes. He moved from New Hampshire because of "high real estate taxes," he reported, and was unhappy that his taxes had increased by $1600 since he'd moved to Fort Kent.
Councilor Gauvin said, "The cost driving the increase is in the school board budget. We're held hostage to the school budget increase."
He said a mil rate increase is inevitable unless the town can figure out a way to reduce the town budget by the same amount that the school board budget has increased.
Planning Board and school board member Danny Nicolas spoke from the audience and said, "If you look at the amount of the increase [in the school budget],... it's primarily because of a reduction in funding from the state."
Councilor Jake Robichaud suggested it might be time to "look really hard at closing schools."
Nicolas said the parents of many of the students in the outlying schools are choosing to move their children to the Fort Kent elementary school, but that it is a slow process and a painful one. He said the decision to a close a school is a difficult one.
The audience member also volunteered the opinion that closing schools are school programs is not the best option, since schools are what draw people to an area in the first place.
"It’s a catch-22," he said. "We in Fort Kent should be proud of our schools. We need to figure out how we fill these empty homes."
Fort Kent residents can anticipate a special town meeting to discuss issues associated with the upcoming comprehensive plan update and with the proposed increase in the mil rate.
Earlier in the meeting, Guimond informed town councilors that the 2013 town valuation will be rising approximately $5 million, after a previous increase of $7 million.
The current valuation is approximately $230 million.
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