China town manager retires after 22 years service

Retiring China Town Manager Dan L’Heureux poses for a portrait at his desk at the China Town Office. His retirement became official on July 1, 2018. (Photo by Eric Austin)

by Eric W. Austin

When Dan L’Heureux was hired at the start of 1996, the China Select Board had two primary goals for the new town manager. First, they were looking to foster more economic development in the town. Second, they wanted someone who could achieve a stable mil (tax) rate that could be maintained even during tough economic times.

Based on just these two criteria, Dan’s tenure as town manager has been a huge success.

“If you plan long-term, and you work that plan, you can’t go wrong,” Dan told me when I asked him the secret to his success. “You plan for the bad times during the good times.”

This philosophy is apparent in every decision he’s made as town manager. Whether it’s the establishment of the TIF (tax increment financing) fund that will finance more than eight million dollars in economic development over its 30-year lifespan, or the purchase of snow plows that might cost more upfront but will save the town money in the long-run, Dan’s always thinking long-term.

The result is a town that’s in better shape than perhaps any time in its history. With no debt, capital assets that are in good shape, and a surplus that will see the town through any unforeseen emergencies, Dan is leaving the town in an enviable position for his successor.

“Dan knows finances,” Selectman Irene Belanger told me. But Dan’s financial savvy isn’t the only reason he is so beloved in the town of China. “Dan is compassionate,” Irene also said.

Recently retired selectman Joann Austin explained further. “He takes all that stuff that gets thrown at the town office, at the town government,” she said, “and he responds and listens, but he doesn’t react. He’s warm and he listens. He’s really quite heroic.”

Perhaps part of it is Dan’s humility. He defines his role as town manager as a supportive one. “The Select Board steers the ship,” he told me. “As managers, we provide the support. We do the research – meticulous and comprehensive research – that allows them to make the best decisions for the town.”

And he isn’t shy about spreading the credit around. “The Select Board and budget committees have been excellent stewards,” he said. “And you can accomplish a lot with good employees. Ours are superior!”

Finding just one thing that defines Dan’s legacy as town manager is not easy. One could point to the transfer station. A well-oiled machine and the envy of neighboring towns, China’s transfer station has maintained a nearly flat budget over the years despite numerous improvements and additions.

One could point to the many ways Dan has saved the town money. His talent in applying for grants has saved residents more than a million dollars over the last two decades. Those grants have funded everything from the building of the salt/sand shed and recycling center at the transfer station, to the sidewalk project in South China; the restoration of the historic one-room schoolhouse in Weeks Mills, to the tree cleanup after the 1998 ice storm. Dan knows how to get more done with less.

At Dan’s final selectmen’s meeting on June 25, Neil Farrington invited him to offer a few words. In response, Dan related how he’d had four criteria when considering whether to take the town manager’s position back in 1996: he was looking for a job that had the support of his family; he wanted to like the work he would be doing; he hoped to find a team he’d enjoy working with (and hopefully would like him in return); and finally, he wanted to like the people he was working for (the Select Board and the residents of the Town of China). His job as China town manager, he said, had fulfilled all four of those criteria. The past 22 years had been exceptionally rewarding for him, and he hoped that feeling was mutual.

On Saturday, June 30, the China Select Board presented Dan with a Spirit of America award for his more than two decades of service to the town.

What’s up next for the new retiree? “People say you shouldn’t make any decisions for six months after you retire,” he responds with a laugh.

Although he now lives in Waterville, wherever life takes him next, Dan L’Heureux will always find a home in the Town of China, Maine.

Eric W. Austin lives in China, Maine. He writes about technology and community issues and can be contacted by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

China selectmen revisit fire pond issue

by Mary Grow

At their June 25 meeting China selectmen revived the Neck Road fire pond they killed at their June 11 meeting, when they voted to fill it in. New Town Manager Dennis Heath presented cost estimates – not bids, he emphasized – for three options: filling the pond, re-configuring it with sloped sides and digging a new properly designed pond farther from Neck Road.

The existing pond was dug last fall with steep sides that Heath said are caving in. It is close enough to Neck Road to make selectmen worry about damaging the side of the road. Estimated cost of filling it is $14,400, including material and labor. Re-configuring it would cost about as much just for material and would create a pond too small to be useful, Heath said.

The proposed new pond would be farther from the road, 12 feet deep in the deepest part, with sloping sides and a capacity of 240,000 gallons. Estimated costs, from three people, ranged from $14,400 downward.

Selectmen voted unanimously to authorize Heath to get necessary legal documents prepared and signed by the landowners involved and town officials, and to reallocate $6,000 intended for guardrail to work on the new pond.

In other business, selectmen paid numerous almost-year-end bills and scheduled a special meeting for 4 p.m. Friday, June 29, primarily to pay any more bills that come in as the fiscal year ends June 30.

Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Committee member Tom Michaud reported that the subcommittee he heads expects bids on the new bridge at the head of China Lake’s east basin at the end of the week. After the bridge work, scheduled for late September and October of this year, plans for phase two, a walkway along the shore, are indefinite and plans to improve the boat landing are blocked by lack of parking.

Selectmen have approached resident Susan Bailey about selling her small lot on the north side of the causeway where boat-landing users now park. Bailey told them she will sell her entire property, the small lot plus a larger one across Lakeview Drive, but not the small piece separately.

Selectmen unanimously directed Heath or departing Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux or both to tell Bailey the town is still interested in acquiring her land. Voters have approved spending up to $10,000 from TIF funds for the causeway lot, but have not been asked about the larger property.

Board members voted unanimously to buy a new one-ton pick-up truck with a V plow for $36,990, to be taken from the capital equipment reserve fund. They decided not to trade in the town’s 2012 pick-up, figuring it will still be useful.

As selectmen reviewed the many committee and other appointments that they need to make for the new fiscal year, the town managers said Animal Control Officer Peter E. Nerber plans to resign unless he can get an assistant, since his son, Peter A. Nerber, no longer works with him. Heath said he is looking for someone to help the senior Nerber.

The China town office will be closed Saturday, June 30, in preparation for the 5 p.m. reception in the portable building for retiring Town Manager L’Heureux. The office will also be closed Wednesday, July 4, in observance of Independence Day.

According to the town website, the next regular selectmen’s meeting, after the June 29 special meeting, is scheduled for Monday evening, July 9.

Vassalboro board rejects request for reconsideration

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Board of Appeals members have refused to reconsider their May 22 rejection of Jonathan Blumberg’s appeal of Codes Officer Richard Dolby’s permit issued in March to Bernard Welch.

In May, three board of appeals members unanimously agreed Blumberg’s procedural and substantive objections to Dolby’s action were without merit. They told Blumberg he could request that the board reconsider, or appeal the board’s action to Superior Court.

Blumberg chose to request a reconsideration. Vassalboro’s ordinance says in that case, “A demonstration must be made by the applicant [Blumberg] that substantial new evidence has been brought before the board or an error or mistake of law or misunderstanding of fact has been made.”

At the board’s June 20 discussion on the reconsideration request, Blumberg presented two procedural issues, claiming he had not received formal notice of the May 22 decision nor timely notice of the June 20 meeting.

Board members and Dolby said the May 22 decision was not final until board members approved the meeting minutes. They took that action at the end of the June 20 meeting. They dismissed Blumberg’s claim that he did not know on what basis they had acted, reminding him that he was present for the entire meeting May 22.

The June 20 meeting had been publicized as required by the ordinance, to abutters and in the newspaper. When Blumberg said he did not read the newspaper, Dolby replied that was not the town’s fault.

Earlier in June, Blumberg sent the board three pages of items he claimed were “discovery after the fact,” not considered at the May 22 meeting. Board member Gary Coull said he found no new evidence in the presentation.

Blumberg claimed he had additional evidence that he had not had time to organize, “mostly stuff that I printed off the web” plus applicable laws. Board members believed he should have had his evidence ready for June 20.

Board Chairman John Reuthe made it clear he was losing patience with Blumberg’s repeated challenges to Dolby’s actions affecting Welch’s property. “What do you really want? Do you want them [the Welches] to leave town?” he demanded. “I would like to live peacefully and safely on my property. I would like my neighbors to obey the rules,” Blumberg replied.

Board members were not convinced that Welch is violating town ordinances. If some part of his farming operation, or the bed and breakfast Blumberg claims Welch runs, needs additional state permits, the local board of appeals has no jurisdiction, Dolby said.

Board members unanimously approved Lee Duff’s motion that no new evidence was presented and the board had nothing to consider. They advised Blumberg that his next recourse was an appeal to Superior Court.

Vassalboro school board had hoped to appoint new superintendent

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members hoped to approve a new superintendent for Vassalboro at their June 19 meeting, but no one has been chosen.

Eric Haley was full-time superintendent for all three AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) schools (Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow) until voters dissolved the AOS in March, effective June 30. Vassalboro is now looking for a part-time superintendent, to work the equivalent of one day a week.

Haley explained that the person who is the Vassalboro search committee’s first choice is trying unsuccessfully – so far – to put together a package of jobs adding up to full-time. If that person cannot take the Vassalboro job, Haley said the search committee recommends re-advertising the position. Meanwhile, Haley offered to continue as interim superintendent until the position is filled. School board members unanimously accepted his offer.

Vassalboro Community School is also lacking a half-time Spanish teacher. New Principal Megan Allen said there have been no applicants for the position. Allen recommended advertising for someone to teach any foreign language rather than abandoning all foreign-language offerings.

School board members agreed by consensus to continue until mid-July looking for someone to continue the Spanish program, and if that search is unsuccessful to advertise for someone to teach any non-English-language class.

Board members voted reluctantly to increase 2018-19 school lunch prices by 10 cents, from $2.65 to $2.75 for a full-price lunch. Retiring Principal Dianna Gram explained that the federal government has a price formula under which Vassalboro should be charging $2.90; if the school does not move toward that goal, 10 cents at a time, federal subsidies might be reduced. More cheerfully, board members approved the 2018-19 school budget previously approved by Vassalboro voters, the 2018-19 school calendar (with a fourth snow day, Haley said) and the school board meeting schedule; several updated curricula; and appointment of Devin Lachapelle as a new math/social studies teacher. They accepted the resignation of first-grade teacher Arielle Jurdak-Roy, who is moving. Gram praised Jurdak-Roy, the teachers who worked on amended curricula and AOS #92 curriculum director Mary Boyle.

Although the AOS is officially dissolved, many of the central office staff will continue to work for one or more of the three municipalities’ schools under an interlocal agreement approved by all three school boards. Haley also recommends school administrators from the three municipalities continue to meet to share ideas, pointing out that when AOS #92 was formed, Waterville and Winslow promptly copied Vassalboro’s successful reading program.

Haley will continue as Waterville superintendent. He assured Vassalboro officials, “I’ll still be around. Obviously I’m not going to leave my friends in the lurch.”

The next Vassalboro School Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, July 17, if there is a new Vassalboro superintendent by then. If not, the next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, Aug. 21.

China resident sworn in as new state police chief

John Cote, left. (Contributed photo)

John Cote, of China, was recently sworn in as Chief of the Maine State Police. Cote, a 29-year veteran, has served as deputy chief for the past two years and is the former commanding officer for Troop F, in Houlton. He spent the majority of his career in Aroostook County. He also served several years as a Detective-Sergeant investigating homicides.

He was sworn into office by Governor LePage in the governor’s cabinet room in front of a roomful of family and co-workers. His badge was pinned on by his 82-year-old father, Morris Cote, of Houlton.

Vassalboro residents asked for input on marijuana, picnic area

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen would appreciate residents’ opinions on two topics, preferably before the June 28 selectmen’s meeting. The first issue is whether townspeople want to try to restrict the number of storefront medical marijuana shops – places where people with a prescription for marijuana can get it filled – allowed in town. The second is whether there is any reason to continue to lease the Route 3 former picnic area and boat launch from the state, instead of canceling the lease.

Town Manager Mary Sabins raised both questions at the June 14 selectmen’s meeting.

The first came up because Sabins expects the planning board to hear an application to open a medical marijuana dispensary in one end of the storage building on Route 3. That business, if approved by planners, would be grandfathered and not affected by any later action, she said.

However, if many residents think one such business in town is enough, selectmen could draft an ordinance banning any more and bring it to a special town meeting. (ep)

Sabins pointed out that China already has a medical marijuana dispensary on Route 3, just east of the Adams Realty office.

Vassalboro has an ordinance banning retail recreational marijuana establishments, approved in January 2017. Medical marijuana, under state law, falls into a different category and is not covered by the recreational marijuana ordinance.

The Three Mile Pond issue came up, Sabins said, after a resident complained about the condition of the fence between the state-owned facilities and adjoining private property. She realized that neither the former picnic area nor the boat launch is of use to the town and asked state officials if the lease could be cancelled. The answer was yes, and the public would continue to have access to the boat launch.

The picnic area used to have tables, grills and other amenities, and town officials considered trying to create a swimming area. They found a weedy lake bottom and a lack of interest. The semi-abandoned picnic area attracted unwelcome behavior, so about nine years ago, by Sabins’ reckoning, the amenities were removed, leaving only the boat landing functional.

Selectmen are leaning toward not recommending limits on medical marijuana facilities – board Chairman Lauchlin Titus compared them to pharmacies – and toward giving up responsibility for the boat landing. They postponed both decisions, however, to let residents weigh in.

People wanting to express an opinion are welcome to call the town office or to get in touch directly with Titus, Robert Browne or John Melrose.

China Selectman Irene Belanger sent Vassalboro selectmen a third question, an invitation to close the Vassalboro transfer station and share China’s. After a brief discussion, Titus summed up the board’s response: Thanks for asking, but no thanks. Road Foreman Eugene Field reported on preliminary investigation into fixing an old culvert on Cross Hill Road, an issue he raised at the May 31 selectmen’s meeting (see the June 7 issue of The Town Line, p. 3). As expected, the work will be expensive. Field will continue exploring options.

Selectmen accepted Field’s recommendation and awarded the 2018 paving contract to the low bidder, Wellman Paving, of Winterport. As in past years, China and Vassalboro submitted a joint bid; China also chose Wellman.

Sabins told selectmen their notice to tenants of two mobile homes with failing septic systems had been delivered after the mobile home park’s owner took no action. The tenants were being advised to seek legal aid, she said.

The June 28 selectmen’s meeting begins with a 6:30 p.m. public hearing on the Community Development Block Grant awarded to the Vassalboro Sanitary District to help fund the new sewer connection to Winslow.

China TIF committee reports little progress

Joe McLean, from Wright-Pierce Engineers, shows bridge plans for the causeway to the TIF committee in May 2018. (Contributed photo)

by Mary Grow

China’s TIF (Tax Increment Finance) Committee members had little progress to report at their June 18 meeting.

The committee’s main focus is on the head of China Lake’s east basin, where the first phase of a multi-year project involves replacing the bridge across the inlet stream. That work is supposed to be done this fall. Phase two calls for additional parking, improvements to the existing boat landing and increased pedestrian access to the shore. Tom Michaud, chairman of the subcommittee working on the causeway project, reported that only one company responded to a request for bids on the bridge. When Joe McLean, the Wright-Pierce engineer working with China, inquired, he found potential bidders were booked for the summer and had not read enough of the request to realize the work is to be done in September and October.

Consequently, Michaud said, the bid deadline was extended, and he hopes for at least four bids.

The shortage of parking is so far stymieing phase two. The land where boaters park across from the landing, and a larger parcel across Routes 202 and 9, belong to Susan Bailey, not to the town. Michaud and other committee members insist that if the project is to succeed the town needs to buy the property.

After a lively discussion, Soares proposed that he, Michaud and fellow subcommittee member Jim Wilkens talk with other landowners on the east side of Route 202 and along the west end of Pleasant View Ridge Road to find out whether anyone is willing to sell.

If parking is to be across the main road, committee member Amy Gartley said, pedestrian safety needs to be considered. Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux reminded the committee that the state Department of Transportation (MDOT) agreed to install a traffic light on Route 3 in South China when Hannaford agreed to pay for it. Soares suggested the town could pay for a light at the head of the lake.

Committee members touched briefly on the 45-mile-an-hour speed limit on the causeway, a left-over from the days when the main road ran through China Village and across the causeway. L’Heureux said MDOT plans a traffic study and is likely to adjust the limit to the average actual speed.

The committee postponed discussion of other pending projects. Members reviewed Soares’ draft application form for TIF funds and suggested a few changes and review by town office staff.

According to the Town of China web site, the TIF Committee will meet again at 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 16.

Vassalboro voters elect two incumbents

by Mary Grow

At the polls June 12, Vassalboro voters re-elected two incumbent town officials and re-approved the 2018-19 school budget initially approved at the June 4 open town meeting.

Town Clerk Cathy Coyne reported that Selectman John Melrose received 808 votes and school board member Jolene Clark Gamage 786 votes.

The vote on the school budget was 620 in favor and 247 opposed, Coyne said.

She called the turnout “pretty good” for a primary election, with voters coming steadily all day.

VASSALBORO: Interlocal agreement reached

by Mary Grow

The interlocal agreement between Vassalboro and its former partners in AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92, Waterville and Winslow, became effective June 4. It provides for the three municipalities to share central office services previously provided by the AOS office as follows:

  • For special education for all three towns, Waterville will employ a part-time director for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade and an assistant director for grades six through 12; Winslow will employ an assistant director for kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • Winslow will employ a curriculum director and an instructional specialist who will work for Vassalboro and Waterville as well, and a finance director who will work only for Winslow and Vassalboro.
  • Waterville will employ a food service director, a technology director and “personnel to administer business functions including payroll, accounts payable and receivable, insurance, and reporting; and administration of facilities maintenance; administration of student transportation; and will maintain Infinite Campus technology to be shared among the Parties.”

(Infinite Campus, according to its website, is an educational software company that helps schools “streamline educational processes, promote stakeholder collaboration and personalize learning.”)

Each municipality will have a superintendent of schools. For the present, former AOS Superintendent Eric Haley plans to stay in Waterville; former Assistant Superintendent Peter Thiboutot is Winslow superintendent; and Vassalboro is hiring a superintendent for one day a week.

Haley and school board members explained that one day a week does not mean the superintendent will be in Vassalboro for eight or 10 hours one day and not seen again for a week; he or she is more likely to split the time among several days as meetings and other events require.

The superintendent and/or school board of the system hiring the shared personnel listed above will make all hiring and firing decisions. They may consider recommendations from the other superintendents.

Each school’s costs for the shared personnel will be apportioned by the formula used to divide central office costs before voters dissolved the AOS in a March referendum: half on the basis of municipal valuation, half on the basis of student population.

The agreement will run until June 30, 2021. It can be amended or terminated earlier by written agreement of all three school boards.

Some Vassalboro Budget Committee members and selectmen criticized the interlocal agreement on two counts: they suggested the school board should have explored more options and perhaps found comparable services at a lower price, and they think a three-year commitment is too long.

Haley replied to both criticisms. With state education officials’ idea of regional service centers instead of AOSs and RSUs (Regional School Units) so new, there are not yet a lot of options organized, he said. And a three-year agreement has two benefits: the additional staff he hires will have at least a three-year commitment, and Vassalboro board members will have time to adapt to the new system, see how it works and, if dissatisfied, look for an alternative.

Vassalboro planners approve four permit applications

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members approved all four permit applications on their June 5 agenda, two for auxiliary buildings, one for a seasonal farm stand and one for a new auto repair garage.

Receiving permits were:

  • John and Paula Libby to build a 30-by-40-foot garage, with no plumbing, at 325 Webber Pond Road, in the Outlet Stream shoreland zone 200 feet from the water. • Forrest and Gloria Young to build a 12-by-16-foot shed, on skids rather than a foundation, at 208 Austin Road, 150 feet from Three Mile Pond.
  • Parker Denico to build and operate a seasonal vegetable stand at 991 Main Street in North Vassalboro.
  • Heather and Eric Smith and David York to open an auto repair and body shop in a section of the old mill at 960 Main Street in North Vassalboro.

Denico previously received a site review permit, but could not get the needed shoreland zoning permit without a variance from setback requirements, because the building will be less than 100 feet from Outlet Stream. The Vassalboro Board of Appeals approved his variance request at a May 15 meeting, clearing the way for final approval of the project.

The Smiths and York plan to reuse a part of the mill previously used for a similar purpose. Their business name is Overkill Garage LLC, Heather Smith said. Their main business will be automobile repairs and body work, but they talked about working on anything with an engine, including ATVs, lawnmowers and chainsaws.

Planning board members were concerned about a trench across the floor that serves as a drain, of unknown age and with an unknown outflow. Board Chairman Virginia Brackett guessed it empties into Outlet Stream.

The first idea was to cover it over, until Heather Smith remembered that it channels rain that leaks in and Codes Officer Richard Dolby suggested it might also be connected to roof drains. Planning board members and the applicants agreed on some kind of barrier to make sure no motor fluids get into the drain.

Dolby said the planning board already has applicants to be heard at the next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday evening, July 10.

He also reported that Jonathan Blumberg asked the board of appeals to reconsider its May 22 denial of Blumberg’s appeal of Dolby’s issuance of a permit to Bernard Welsh (see this article). The board of appeals is scheduled to meet Wednesday evening, June 20, Dolby said.