WINSLOW — A first-in-the-state support program for farmers has caused a debate between some members of the Town Council and the agricultural commission on how much tax relief to hand out.
At a Town Council meeting Feb. 21, councilor Ken Fletcher proposed amending the Voluntary Municipal Farm Support Program to include a framework that would limit relief. However, the co-chair of the agriculture commission, which manages the applications for the program, said it needs to remain flexible to work.
The council ultimately voted to table decisions on the first two recommendations for the program from the town’s agricultural commission at the meeting.
The farm support program was created through state legislation years ago, but Winslow is the first town in the state to incorporate it. In the program, the farmer or landowner agrees to conserve their farmland for 20 years in exchange for “farm support payments” equivalent to some percentage of the assessed property taxes each year.
Fletcher proposed adding a framework that would cap most property tax rebates farmers receive in the program at 90 percent for land and 75 percent for principle structures, dropping down to 35 percent for what he referred to as “incidental structures” that aren’t fully used.
Meanwhile, the commission had already recommended that the first two program applicants – Wayne Hapworth and Steve and Julia Russell – receive 100 percent of their assessed taxes back each year in exchange for their commitment to agricultural conservation. However, that would only apply to their farmland and farm structures, not their personal residences or lots.
Fletcher is concerned about giving part of the farm properties 100 percent rebates. He said the program was created to “ease the tax burden,” not eliminate it.
Using the framework he created, Fletcher proposed amending the recommendations for both properties. While one amendment was put on the table, all votes were postponed until the next meeting, Monday at 7 p.m.
In a later interview, Fletcher said he thinks the program is “worthwhile” but that the commission needs to use a framework to be “consistent.”
Fletcher gave the commission the opportunity to create a framework after sending them questions when he learned their preliminary recommendations — which gave 100 percent rebates — he said. However, commission co-chair Kate Newkirk said they weren’t under that impression and that they first heard about his idea at the Town Council meeting.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Newkirk said. It was “a little disconcerting,” she said, adding that the commission wasn’t approached beforehand.
Fletcher said he was surprised that the commission recommended 100 percent rebates for both farms.
“Any property tax break we give, that’s going to be shifted to somebody else in town,” he said. The town would lose about $7,000 in taxes, according to a preliminary analysis done by Judy Mathiau, the town assessor. It would increase the tax rate by about $0.01.
According to Newkirk, asking for 100 percent is justified in these two cases.
“They’re the biggest farms, and all of their income comes from farming,” she said. “The adjustments are for farmland and farm buildings, but these guys also have residences and lots, and they also pay personal property taxes. These two taxes in particular pay those (taxes) from farm income.”
Analyzing both the Russells’ and Hapworths’ total property taxes of their personal property, and farm and residences, the commission recommended paying back only 31 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of their tax bills, Newkirk said.
Newkirk said the commission looks at the use and condition of the structures on the property to determine whether to include them in the rebate assessment. For instance, a chicken barn on the Russells’ farm received a recommendation for no relief because it is used mainly for storage.
For the land, she thinks differently.
“The whole purpose of the program is to preserve the land,” Newkirk said. “All the land should be at the 100 percent level because we’re really trying to save the productive soils in the town that can be used for agriculture.”
Madeline St. Amour can be contacted at 861-9239 or at: