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 on 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 principal 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, which is 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.”

“We are the first one in the state, you know. We haven’t got a model,” he said. “You’re going to need an objective that we can use so when each case comes up, we can ensure there is some continuity and reproducibility of this process.”

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 added, 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. And while it’s not a “significant” amount of money in this case, he said, the council still has to remember that principle.

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 Hapworth’s total property taxes of their personal property, 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.”

Both farms have been in operation since the 1800s, and both farmers are hoping to pass them along to the next generation.

Fletcher had quoted an analysis that found that farms use only about 37 percent as much community services as other residents, which he said justified not giving them 100 percent rebates.

“What’s a fair share — we’ll call it a fair share — of taxes that they could pay or should pay to recognize that they’re getting community services,” such as fire and rescue services, trash pickup and plowing, he said.

When asked why Fletcher and the council didn’t consider adding a framework to the program when it was initially passed in the fall, he said he asked the same questions of the commission, but in hindsight the council may have missed the opportunity, which happens when something is new.

Now, he said, “The council has the responsibility to deal with it.”

Newkirk accepts that the council has the ultimate authority over the rebates applicants are offered and even the program itself, but she questions whether it would be successful.

“If the Town Council wanted us to put a permanent framework on it, then we would, but I don’t know how many people would put their land up for 20 years for a small percentage of their taxes,” she said. “It’s a 20-year commitment of their land when they can’t do anything with it other than farm it. It has to be worth their while.”

Hapworth said as much at the council meeting, saying he didn’t know if he would accept a lower rebate because it may not be worth it for him financially.

Newkirk and the commission had a “good conversation” with Fletcher after the council meeting, she said, but they still plan to push for 100 percent rebates for parts of both of the applicants’ properties. Hapworth would get about $2,650 back with the recommendation, and the Russells would get about $3,600.

“It’s a commitment to agriculture in Winslow and Winslow’s ability to produce its own food and fiber locally,” Newkirk said.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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