With more than $3.5 million worth of 2019-2020 expenditures up for approval, change or rejection at China’s April 6 town business meeting, voters focused on $17,700 – a $13,700 difference between the lowest and highest amounts proposed for the volunteer fire departments and $4,000 to increase the five selectmen’s annual stipends from $1,000 to $1,800.
They were generous to both parties, and approved all other expenditures as proposed.
They also approved changes to the Land Development Code recommended by the planning board. After Board Chairman Tom Miragliuolo answered one question about tents and recreational vehicles, there was no further discussion of any of the changes.
China’s three volunteer fire departments, China Village, South China and Weeks Mills, and China Rescue are private organizations, not town departments. They are funded partly by the town and partly by fund-raisers and donations.
In the warrant, selectmen recommended $171,199 for fire and rescue services and the budget committee recommended $181,499, both by unanimous votes of the members present. The difference was over how much the departments should have to offer stipends to officers and to members responding to calls.
Aware of the months-long disagreement between selectmen and fire chiefs, veteran moderator Richard Thompson emphasized in his opening explanations the need for speakers to stick to the subject and to focus on issues, not personalities. His effort was mostly successful.
After Budget Committee Chairman Robert Batteese moved the higher amount for the fire and rescue budget, resident Sheryl Peavey promptly moved a still higher figure, $188,499, which she said was the departments’ initial request.
The underlying issue is less the money than selectmen’s concern that the firefighters are jeopardizing their volunteer status, resulting in tax complications, and their insistence that the departments should account to them for expending town funds – the fire chiefs agree – and for expending their other funds, something the chiefs have objected to.
China Village Chief Timothy Theriault said since the stipends started, his department has gained five new members, South China has gained three and Weeks Mills has gained two. He believes the stipends helped.
A two-page memo from Scott Cotnoir, Director of the Maine Department of Labor, spelled out requirements for reimbursing volunteers, requirements that Theriault said the departments can meet.
South China Chief Richard Morse and Theriault said the request is likely to change in the next few years as chiefs find out how much they actually need for stipends.
After a half-hour discussion, during which several speakers commended the firefighters and resident Donald Pauley rebuked the audience for quarreling over “a piddling amount,” the $188,499 was lopsidedly approved.
Asked about the increase in selectmen’s stipends, Town Manager Dennis Heath pointed out the footnote to the warrant article saying $1,800 was slightly below the current average for selectmen in 16 towns similar in size to China. Voters approved the increase by a counted show of voting cards, 64 in favor to 44 opposed.
The budget included in the 2018 town report shows expenditures and supporting revenues in detail, from employee salaries to charitable gifts.
Heath repeatedly said before the meeting that there would – or should – be a quorum, given the number of supporters of China’s Quorum Ordinance last November, and that the meeting would be shorter than usual. He was right on both counts: 119 voters had checked in by the 9 a.m. starting time (another 30 or so came in later), and the meeting lasted less than two hours.
Before the meeting started, Selectwoman Irene Belanger announced 2019 Spirit of America awards for volunteerism to the China Four Seasons Club and Carl and Phyllis Farris.
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