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Farmington voters approve $7.6 million budget at contentious meeting

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A large crowd of community members gathered at Mt. Blue High School Monday night for the annual town meeting.

FARMINGTON – Hundreds of voters gathered at the Mt. Blue High School gymnasium Monday night for the first in-person town meeting since 2019. Residents were provided the opportunity to discuss a proposed $8.4 million budget presented by the town’s budget committee and the board of selectmen before accepting or denying the figures. Several lines of the budget were altered by voters at the meeting, lowering the total budget to roughly $7.6 million. That figure represents a $752,000, or 10% increase from the current fiscal year’s budget.

Alternative numbers were provided by Selectman Joshua Bell and Selectman Byron Staples, who said they were unhappy with the way the budget season had gone and wanted to provide a better compromise for tax payers and town officials. The two, along with supporters of their proposed alternative budget, rallied voters to attend the meeting by way of mailed letters and radio ads, and handed out copies of their reduced budget at the meeting.

Some took exception to the presentation of the alternative budget.

“The people in this audience tonight determine the outcome of the vote, but I have issue that the process was not followed, it was not respected, and for selectmen that know better to not honor the process that we have used for years is just not okay,” Budget Committee member Judy Murphy said at the meeting. “So, I’m saying to you folks tonight that the process was not used, it was not respected and we have a group of people that tried to undermine the process itself and in doing so, they succeeded in dividing this community and that’s not okay either.”

The community was indeed largely divided, with numerous contentious moments between voters, selectmen and budget committee members taking place. Many people echoed Murphy’s thoughts, saying that Bell and Staples used manipulative tactics to sway voters, including not presenting their final numbers until the evening of the meeting.

Bell told the crowd that the alternative budget figures hadn’t been ready until that morning and that he and Staples were working on the proposal until that very afternoon.

“There were a lot of numbers that didn’t seem right or seemed off,” Staples said Tuesday. “I respect everybody’s work, but it’s a difficult job to do without the actual numbers of what’s in accounts.”

He said that account audits are still not back, but that more inaccuracies could show up once they are.

“It’s one of those things that the more you look into it the more discrepancies there are,” he said.

On Tuesday, Bell called his proposal a compromise between the interests of the town’s needs and those of the taxpayers. “Not everybody walks away in a compromise happy,” he said Tuesday. “Some get wins, some get losses. My point wasn’t to be divisive.”

Among the most discussed warrant items were Article 2 and Article 5, which addressed General Administration and the Fire Department budgets, respectively.

The budget as presented by the Budget Committee and Board of Selectmen proposed significant wage increases for town employees. Town Manager Christian Waller recommended the increases after finding that most of the employees had not received salary increases in a number of years. The added revenue from the solar farm would help get those positions up to speed as compared to other local municipalities, he said. Earlier this year, the town treasurer left the position for a neighboring town offering 25% more in pay, he said. The amount recommended by the Budget Committee and Selectmen was voted down however, with residents opting for Bell and Byron’s proposal instead. A total of $860,275 was passed with 197 voting in favor and 119 voting against the amendment.

Both Bell and Byron supported and encouraged voters to pass the Police Department budget at $1,695,400- a 12.33% increase from the current fiscal year. Bell noted that the police department is struggling to keep officers and that offering wage increases would help the department seem more appealing to potential applicants.

However, Bell and Byron also proposed reducing the recommended Fire Department budget by $79,552. Selectman Stephan Bunker said Tuesday that while it feels premature to predict how the cuts will impact the department, the options are slim. Bunker is part of a state-lead committee that looks at issues regarding fire protection, prevention and fighting, and said that right now 80% of the state’s protection personnel are either on-call, hourly firefighters, or volunteers. Part of the department’s proposed budget would have shifted the money used for per-diem positions into two, full time positions to ensure that the department has enough staff at all time to get an apparatus going, Bunker said.

“For us to muster a crew on a major fire is most concerning, and in order to insure citizens in the area that we can get a timely response … we’ve had to change from volunteers to having a minimum number of paid firefighters, at least have two, at the station to get an apparatus going in a timely fashion,” he said.

The department will meet with the selectboard tonight to go over the “ramifications of last night’s decisions.”

Across the board, departments are looking at similar difficult decisions after having their detailed budgets cut.

“I’m holding my breath to see what the implications are really going to be, particularly as it affects our workforce,” Bunker said. “My concern is the morale of our workforce and the turnover we’ve had of critical employees and our ability to refill those position given what the economics are now. I’m holing my breath that this isn’t the start of a downturn for our community.”

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