Fairfield announces facade improvement plan

Downtown Fairfield. (Contributed photo)

The town of Fairfield has launched a new program to enhance the economic vitality and character of the town’s commercial districts. The Fairfield Façade Improvement and Marketing Assistance Program (FIMAP) allocates financial incentives for the renovation, restoration, and preservation of privately-owned business exteriors within the Town of Fairfield, as well as for marketing assistance to stimulate commerce.

The aesthetics of a community and its neighborhoods are a key factor in visitors’ decisions to live, work, and shop in a municipality. By providing grants or forgivable loans for up to 50 percent of the cost of façade improvement and marketing projects, the Town of Fair­field in­tends to leverage its historical and commercial assets.

“Place-based economics are a driving force behind vibrant municipalities in the 21st century,” states Garvan D. Donegan, director of planning and economic development at Central Maine Growth Council. “A high quality of place attracts investment, residents, and visitors, making FIMAP an important opportunity to realize the full potential of Fairfield’s commercial properties, in­cluding historical facilities in the down­town district.”

The competitive application process, reviewed by Fai­field’s Economic and Com­m­nity Develop­ment Advisory Commit­tee, offers two project tracks: façade improvement and marketing assistance. Within the façade improvement track, high-priority projects include, but are not limited to: preservation and restoration of original and/or historical facades; removal of “modern”, non-historic alterations or additions to original facades; repair or replacement of windows, doors, and trim; and the addition of signage or awnings. Within the marketing assistance track, eligible projects include, but are not limited to, branding, digital and/or print advertisement, and signage, and applicants must provide a long-term marketing strategy.

Successful proposals will generate significant economic and community development impact. “The Advisory Committee will prioritize projects which strongly contribute to the revitalization of our downtown district, to the restoration of our historic resources, and to job creation,” explains Michelle Flewelling, Fairfield Town Manager.

Eligible projects may apply for $3,000 to $25,000 in funding. The Façade Improvement and Marketing Assistance Program is funded by Fairfield Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenues. Interested applicants may access a FIMAP application at here or by contacting Central Maine Growth Council.

The Economic and Community Development Advisory Committee is a “citizens” committee with open membership to all Fairfield residents, business owners, and educators who have a vested interest in community development. Meetings are open to the public, and the committee typically meets monthly at the Fairfield Community Center; go to Fairfield’s online calendar of events for a meeting schedule.

Nomination papers available in Vassalboro

Nomination papers are now available for Vassalboro’s June 11 local elections. One Selectboard member and two School Board members are to be elected. Terms ending in 2019 are those of Selectman Lauchlin Titus and School Board members Jessica Clark and Kevin Levasseur.

To put a candidate’s name on the ballot, at least 25 but no more than 100 signatures of registered voters are required, and signed nomination papers must be returned to the town office by noon on Friday, Aporil 12.

Selectmen agree to purchase property at head of lake

by Mary Grow

China selectmen have agreed to spend money to advance one town goal and perhaps to spend more in the future to advance a second goal.

After discussion in executive session at their March 18 meeting, the four board members present voted unanimously to pay Susan Bailey $7,500 for her piece of land at the head of China Lake’s east basin, plus acknowledging an additional $2,500 contribution from Bailey, with a plaque recognizing the contribution to be installed.

In November 2016 voters approved spending up to $10,000 for the land, which is used for boat landing parking. Improving the boat landing area is part of the TIF (Tax Increment Finance) Committee’s plan for increasing recreational opportunities.

During the March 18 open meeting, board members unanimously authorized the Broadband Committee to prepare an application for a grant for equipment to expand broadband access.

Town Manager Dennis Heath warned that “This is not going to be a small request.” If the grant is received and requires a local match, it will exceed the $55,000 selectmen asked voters to approve at the April 6, 2018 town business meeting for a year’s worth of grant-matching.

Heath said he will write the application for selectmen to review. The deadline for submitting it is late in April, he said.

After the executive session selectmen took two other actions. They accepted a refund of more than $16,000 from former Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux for over-payment of accrued compensation funds; and they authorized Heath to offer the assistant codes officer position to a person to be named if he or she accepts the job.

In other business during the open meeting:

  • Selectmen authorized Heath to sign a letter of support for the Community Concepts Self-Help Homeownership Program. The manager said the program helps people become homeowners and has a related component that helps rehabilitate houses. (See the website for more information.)
  • Board members approved a red light application for a China Village firefighter. After discussion with police officer Tracy Frost, who agreed with Heath that fire chiefs approve the applications and do not need selectmen’s assent, they voted in future to ask only for after-the-fact reports as China’s three fire chiefs add new red-light users.
  • Selectman Irene Belanger invited residents to share with her their ideas about appropriate celebrations for the 2020 State of Maine Bicentennial.

If China selectmen stay on their regular schedule, their next meeting will be Monday evening, April 1.

China selectmen respond to fire chiefs’ letter

China Village Volunteer Fire Department.(Internet photo)

The China Board of Selectmen responds to “An open letter to China residents from the town’s fire chiefs” (Letter) printed in the March 14, 2019, issue of The Town Line.

Despite any assertions otherwise, the Board of Selectmen are not attempting to control the volunteer fire departments (VFDs) in China. As was correctly noted in the Letter, these are independent nonprofit corporations, organized under the authority of the Maine statutes. They are not municipal fire departments, so their requests for funding from the Town of China are similar to requests from other nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross, Meals-on-Wheels, etc. The only difference is the Maine statutes have this language, “The appropriation of money by a municipality toward the support of an organized firefighting unit incorporated under Title 13, chapter 81, or Title 13-B, is prima facie evidence of official recognition.” (30-A M.R.S. Sec. 3151(3)(B)) This means that a municipality does not require a written contract with these VFDs for them to operate in the town. In addition to the annual budget requests from the VFDs and the recommended stipend amounts, the town also provides insurance coverage for all VFD facilities and vehicles, which are their corporate assets (one fire vehicle may be owned by the town).

The Maine Municipal Association includes this guidance in their legal packet on fire protection (https://memun.org/Member-Center/Info-Packets-Guides/Fire-Protection): “…the municipal budgetary authority (town meeting or town or city council) may properly inquire about what other funds are available before appropriating public monies to support a separately incorporated volunteer fire department.” This appears intended to ensure that only those funds necessary to supplement the private funds of VFDs are appropriated from taxes paid by China residents. This should not be seen as the Select Board viewing “VFD fundraising dollars as a revenue stream for the town;” rather, it is a recognition that taxpayers in the municipality have a right to ensure they are only supplementing the needs of VFDs, not acting as the only funding source for their operations.

The Board of Selectmen does not have the authority to approve the annual budget; that is a function of the Annual Town Business Meeting, where the taxpayers decide on the budget. The Select Board and the Budget Committee deliberate independently and make their respective recommendations to the taxpayers in the annual warrant articles. It was during these deliberations that the Select Board saw what they viewed as “double-dipping” by the officers of the VFDs. In the VFDs’ report of how the mid-fiscal-year stipends were distributed at the end of 2018, the Select Board saw that one VFD paid out $3,720.00 to five officers and $1,310.00 to the other 11 members.

This department has a current fiscal year allocation for stipends of $8,360.80, meaning there is now $3,320.80 available for end-year stipends. This revealed a difference of understanding about how the stipends were to be distributed. The Select Board believed it was a set stipend for four officers in each VFD (chief, $1,000; assistant chief/captain, $500, lieutenant and secretary, $250 each) and the remainder was to be distributed to the other volunteers based on the level of participation. The VFD chiefs believed the officers should receive the set stipend and then share with all the other members in the remaining stipend money according to their participation in calls. This is where the Select Board and VFD chiefs are differing, and that is why the Select Board asked the town manager to present an alternative stipend plan, to stop the double-dipping (chief, $1,000; two officers, $500 each; $300 calculated for each additional volunteer).

The Select Board has requested for several years that the VFDs supply an annual corporate financial statement, just as they do with all other nonprofit corporations requesting town funds. The quarterly reports that the town manager receives from the VFDs help to show how the town’s funds are spent, but do not help the Select Board see whether the amount appropriated each year is the amount necessary to supplement the VFDs’ private funds for their operations and administration. This is not about “reducing VFD operations budget allocations,” but about keeping VFDs accountable to taxpayers.

Since August 2018, the VFDs have had a standing invitation with a spot on the Select Board meeting agenda to communicate with the Select Board about their activities. To date, none of the VFDs has participated in a Select Board meeting for other than a budget deliberation. We do not have a similar invitation for other nonprofit corporations that the town provides funding to, but we realize that the VFDs provide a vital service to our community, and we want to keep the door to communication open.

We are hopeful that the chiefs, officers, and members of the VFDs will see that we don’t want to control how they operate, but we do want to do our job to protect the taxpayers of our town. That is what we were elected to do and we will not back away from that responsibility. We want the stipend money to be shared fairly among the members of the VFDs. We commend the VFDs and their members for the work they do to provide firefighting services, and we look forward to moving past this unfortunate disagreement.

Selectmen discuss sidewalks, sewer fees, solid waste and dam management

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen’s March 7 topics included sidewalks, sewer fees, solid waste hauling and dam management.

The sidewalk discussion related to state plans to rebuild Route 32, tentatively in 2021 or 2022. The question was whether sidewalks in the built-up sections of North and East Vassalboro would increase safety and convenience compared to the five-foot paved shoulders in the state plan.

Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus said the current sidewalks in North Vassalboro are not well maintained in winter and are so bumpy year-round that people often walk in the roadway. The state project would include new sidewalks, but maintenance would be a town responsibility, meaning costs for plowing, salting and sanding and repair as needed.

East Vassalboro resident Holly Weidner thinks drivers would not respect the wide shoulders as pedestrian territory, but would take them as an excuse to drive faster. Titus and Weidner agreed traffic-calming measures in both villages should be part of the rebuilding project.

Board member John Melrose, a former Commissioner of Transportation, expects the state transportation department to hold a public meeting to collect residents’ views when the project is closer to reality.

A resident raised the question of sewer fees, which are scheduled to almost double April 1 to help Vassalboro Sanitary District trustees fund the proposed connection to the Winslow and Waterville sewer system. Another resident said 192 households are on Vassalboro’s system, which serves East and North Vassalboro; many are already delinquent on current sewer fees.

The first speaker asked whether tax money could be used to help residents pay sewer bills. Titus said residents who want a question about spending tax money on the town meeting warrant need to draft it and get 211 voters to sign a petition supporting it in order to compel selectmen to add it.

The town has donated TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds to the sewer project and is likely to continue to do so, he said.

Board members reviewed five bids for hauling solid waste and unanimously accepted Bolster’s Rubbish Removal of Burnham as hauler for solid waste and recyclable cardboard. The bid forms invited bidders to propose alternative methods to the containers the town now uses; Town Manager Mary Sabins said no one did.

The dam issue involves the contract under which the Kennebec Water District (KWD) manages the Outlet Dam in East Vassalboro to keep the China Lake water level within state guidelines. Sabins said the contract expired Jan. 31. The draft renewal submitted by KWD increases the fee charged to Vassalboro and reassigns some responsibilities from KWD to the town.

Sabins said KWD General Manager Roger Crouse had invited her to discuss the contract. Selectmen encouraged her to accept the invitation.

The next regular Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, March 21, with a budget committee meeting scheduled to follow at 7 p.m.

Budget committee absorbs much information at meeting

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Budget Committee members absorbed much information and many opinions at their March 5 and March 7 meetings, though they are well short of overall budget figures needed to begin making recommendations to voters.

The total budget for the current (July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019) fiscal year is somewhat under $10 million. The school budget, which is not yet determined for 2019-2020, is somewhat under $8 million, of which almost $3.7 million comes from local funds. Vassalboro’s share of the 2018-2019 Kennebec County budget is $325,000 and change, with the 2019-2020 assessment also undetermined as of early March.

Questions budget committee members discussed at their two early-March meetings include whether to repair the town grader, buy a second-hand replacement or ask Road Commissioner Eugene Field to lease a grader as needed; whether to replace the police cruiser; additional staffing and possible redesign at the transfer station; and town employees’ salaries.

Last year’s future capital expenditure summary describes Vassalboro’s 1991 grader’s condition as good. At the March 5 meeting, Selectman Lauchlin Titus updated: “It’s still a four-letter word, but the word is ‘junk.’”

Field thinks repairs possible. He recommends committing at least $20,000 to have the grader examined and tested; if it is repairable, he expects at least another five years’ work from it. He said he found one used grader, a 2005, for $80,000; he does not support buying a new one at $280,000 or more.

Vassalboro has only 2.2 miles of unpaved public roads that need annual grading. However, Field said, he and his crew use the grader for shoulder work after paving and as the reserve vehicle in case a plow truck breaks down in mid-storm. Graders are not readily available, he said; if he had to rely on leasing he might not find one when needed.

Discussion of the grader, planned 2019 paving and deteriorating culverts led several people to share accounts of towns elsewhere whose officials have discontinued or dead-ended roads when they could not afford maintenance or a replacement bridge.

Field also requests funding for a new small truck. Asked at the March 7 meeting whether the truck or the grader is more important, he said he needs both.

Police Chief Mark Brown wants his 12-year-old cruiser replaced. He recommended buying a new one, preferably an all-wheel-drive SUV prewired for lights and siren, over three years. The estimated annual payment would be about $13,000. At this early stage in the budget process, his proposal appears to have support.

If he does not get a new vehicle, Brown said, the repair budget needs a generous increase, because the current one keeps having problems – it’s “nickel and diming the town to death.”

Transfer Station Manager George Hamar said he would like a full-time assistant. He has worked alone for a year, having to skip training classes and find a substitute if he is ill.

Town Manager Mary Sabins is considering seeking a new employee qualified to divide hours between public works and the transfer station.

Selectman John Melrose proposes a $5,000 appropriation to get a traffic engineer’s suggestions about changing the traffic pattern at the transfer station to make it safer.

Sabins presented her salary recommendations for current town employees and for any new hires. At this stage, the only firm figure in that area is Sabins’ contractual two percent raise.

The budget committee’s job, as re-elected Chairman Rick Denico reminded members March 5, is to advise voters on selectmen’s and school board members’ recommended expenditures for the new fiscal year. “We can work with the numbers, but we can’t change policy,” he said.

Later in the meeting, budget committee member and former Police Chief Richard Phippen wanted to talk about the selectmen’s policy on policing, which emphasizes community policing and leaves monitoring for speeders mostly to county and state law enforcement. Phippen said residents want as much speed control as possible; Denico repeated policy is not the budget committee’s job.

Policy and priorities, resident Holly Weidner suggested, should be considered at one or more public meetings in the fall, well before the pre-town-meeting budget crunch. Denico referred her to the 2014 Capital Expenses Committee reports on the town website as a starting point, and Selectman Robert Browne invited her to bring concerns to a selectmen’s meeting.

The budget committee canceled scheduled March 12 and March 14 meetings, because Sabins will be out of town – in Washington, D.C., representing Maine in her capacity as Maine Municipal Association President, Titus said approvingly. They also canceled a March 19 meeting because they had talked March 7 with most of the people invited March 19.

Their next meeting is currently scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21, after that evening’s selectmen’s meeting. Expected attendees include representatives of the volunteer fire department; a Cemetery Committee representative to explain a request for money for software; and any social service agencies whose requests are new this year.

Posted Roads Update 2019

Dennis Heath, China town manager

from the office of Dennis Heath, China Town Manager

As most of our community business owners and farmers are aware, this is the time when our local roads are posted for no use by vehicles over a state-defined weight of 23,000 pounds. (https://www.maine.gov/mdot/postedroads/docs/posted_roads_all_2012.pdf)

The exceptions are included in the state statutes here: http://mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/29-A/title29-Asec2395.html.

The resulting damage to our local roads from overweight vehicles demands that we strictly limit granting waivers. Waivers for convenience will not be issued. Use of local roads when the outside temperature is lower than 32F is permitted, but only when evidence of thaw seepage through the roadway is not visible. Please contact (207) 445-2014 with questions or emergency requests.

Declining enrollment could limit gains in state school subsidy

Vassalboro Community School. (source: jmg.org)

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members continued work on their 2019-2020 budget request at a special March 4 meeting, despite still lacking major figures.

Board members do not yet know what the state subsidy for schools will be this year, as state legislators consider which of several options they can afford. Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer said since the subsidy is based on the number of students, Vassalboro’s continued slow decline in school population will limit gains if legislators approve a higher subsidy.

Also uncertain is the amount needed for high-school tuition. Pfeiffer expects the amount will be around $3 million, a substantial part of the total budget. Last year Vassalboro’s school budget was about $7.7 million.

Smaller unknowns as of March 4 were insurance costs and prices for heating oil and bus fuel.

Pfeiffer pointed out that if the legislature increases the minimum wage, school spending is likely to be affected. Other legislature proposals could also change state or local school spending.

A pending local change is that the grant funding the pre-kindergarten program at Vassalboro Community School ends this year. School officials intend to continue the program, using money left over from the current year and anticipated state reimbursement.

Lacking major numbers, board members and school officials discussed smaller items, like Principal Megan Allen’s offer of about $8,300 reductions in new teaching-related expenditures.

Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur estimated that only about 30 percent of the school budget is subject to the board’s and voters’ discretion; the rest is fixed by contracts or necessity. He anticipates an increase in the total budget, no matter how closely board members study it.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, March 19. A joint meeting of the School Board and Budget Committee is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday evening, March 26, at the school.

Planners give thumbs up to school gym expansion

photo source: JMG.org

by Mary Grow

China Planning Board members have unanimously approved an enlargement of the China Middle School gymnasium. RSU (Regional School Unit) #18 Superintendent Carl Gartley said he hopes work will start as soon as school ends in June and be mostly done when school reopens in September, though it might run into October.

At the Feb. 26 China Planning Board meeting, Gartley, engineer Blaine Buck, of Cordjia Capital Projects Group, and architect Mike Sealander, of Sealander Architects, presented project plans.

The addition will be on the west side of the gym, toward Lakeview Drive. It will run the length of the existing building, about 86 feet, and extend the building west about 26 feet. Sealander said it will cover the existing grass strip, but will not affect parking; the existing sidewalk will probably be “chewed up during construction,” but it will be replaced.

The new space will house a new stage, two teachers’ offices and a practice room, plus a storage room and under-the-stage chair storage. There will be room for bleachers in front of the new stage.

The present stage and related rooms will become boys’ and girls’ locker rooms and provide additional bathrooms and a shower that Sealander sees being welcomed by referees.

Gartley said the middle school building is slated for additional work as separate projects, including providing LED lighting indoors and outdoors, repairing the roof and updating the air handling system. Funding will come from the RSU #18 bond issue voters approved in 2018, he said.

Planning board members decided they did not need to hold a public hearing before acting on the application. Gartley commented that redoing the gym has been discussed informally in town for many years, and Board Chairman Tom Miragliuolo observed that there was no audience at the board meeting.

Review of the ordinance criteria found the project meets all of them. Codes Officer Paul Mitnik said he is satisfied it also meets requirements of China’s Phosphorus Control Ordinance.

The next planning board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, March 26, unless Mitnik receives one or more applications (he does not anticipate any) in time to schedule a March 12 meeting.

Selectmen OK two TIF board recommendations

by Mary Grow

At their March 4 meeting, China selectmen unanimously approved two Feb. 25 recommendations from the TIF (Tax Increment Finance) Committee. They authorized Town Manager Dennis Heath to negotiate with Susan Bailey to buy her small piece of land across Causeway Street from the boat landing, and to pay a bill from Comprehensive Land Technologies for the new bridge west of the boat landing.

The Bailey lot is currently used for boaters’ parking; voters approved buying it to continue the use. Heath said the causeway project account still has more than $75,000 to complete the bridge work, including a final paving coat and changes to guardrails.

Another decision selectman made was to approve Heath’s recommendation that the town clerk be designated as the town manager’s alternate should he be out of town or otherwise unable to transact daily business. When Selectman Jeffrey LaVerdiere worried that a hypothetical future town clerk might be less trusted than Rebecca Hapgood, Heath reminded the board that they choose the clerk.

In other business, Heath told board members he has ordered new chairs for them, since the current ones are at least 10 years old, and a larger screen and new projector for the meeting room. Selectman Ronald Breton’s request for a new table, round or perhaps V-shaped so board members could see each other more easily, was discussed, but no action was taken.

Breton proposed another idea that was discussed without action: recommending a town ban on plastic bags, because so many other Maine municipalities are doing so.

LaVerdiere, who owns a retail store outside China Village, opposed a ban; it would increase prices, he said, because alternatives are more expensive. He said he reuses plastic bags as long as they last and commented that when he helps with roadside clean-ups he sees fewer than in the past.

Board Chairman Robert MacFarland said if retail-size plastic bags are banned, garbage bags should be, too: “They’re made out of plastic, and they’re four times as big.” His comment sparked a brief non-serious discussion of other plastic items that could be included in any ban.

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is currently scheduled for Monday evening, March 18.