Board not sure solar farm properly assessed

The solar farm located on Rte. 32 North, in China. (Photo by Roland Hallee)

by Mary Grow

CHINA — Almost three hours of discussion with three lawyers and one assessor left China’s Board of Assessment Review members informed about assessing the value of a community solar farm, but not ready to make a decision on whether the one in China is assessed fairly.

The community solar array is located on Three Level Farm on Route 32 North. After assessor William Van Tuinen valued it, developer ReVision Energy appealed, claiming overvaluation resulting in overtaxation.

Van Tuinen’s illness prevented his reviewing the appeal. It was therefore deemed denied. The presumptive denial brought the issue to the Board of Assessment Review at a Dec. 18 meeting.

ReVision chief counsel and director of development Steve Hinchman and attorney Kristin Collins represented ReVision. Van Tuinen spoke for himself, and attorney Amanda Meader represented the town’s interest.

After presentations and discussion, board members accepted member Sheri Wilkens’ recommendation to postpone a decision. Their next meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening, Jan. 10. Meanwhile, it was suggested both parties and any board members who so choose prepare brief summaries of main points and positions.

Discussion revealed disagreements over five issues.

The first is how to determine the initial value of the project, and the related second is the proper method of calculating ongoing value and depreciation. The third is whether property taxes should be related to income investors derive from the project. The fourth is what value, if any, remains at the end of the project’s lifetime, and a subsidiary issue is how to define the end of the lifetime.

Van Tuinen and Hinchman said there are three ways to establish value: by looking at prices for which similar projects have sold, irrelevant in this case because no one in Maine has bought or sold a community solar farm; Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) model, which Van Tuinen used with modification; and construction costs.

Hinchman analyzed construction costs at length, pointing out the additions to materials and labor in the form of costs like leasing land, getting permits and organizing the solar farm’s owners’ group.

He argued that Van Tuinen had failed to depreciate the value of the solar farm fast enough, pointing out how quickly solar technology becomes obsolescent. Van Tuinen replied that the DCF method covers obsolescence.

Hinchman further argued that the tax Van Tuinen calculated amounted to more than 13 percent of income generated; the correct tax should not exceed five percent, he said. Starting with a five percent tax, Hinchman calculated an assessed value of less than $91,000; Van Tuinen’s figure is around $275,000.

Van Tuinen objected, asking for evidence of Hinchman’s claimed ceiling and saying ReVision “presented the tax they’d like to have” and tried to work backward to set it.

Hinchman also claimed Van Tuinen’s residual value is too high, because used solar equipment is worthless. After 20 years he expects the expense of removing the solar panels would equal any resale value, so the solar array should be valueless after 20 years.

ReVision’s lease runs for 30 years with the option of two five-year extensions, and Van Tuinen said the ReVision website claims 40 years of energy generation.

Selectmen need more info on emergency dispatching


by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen spent the first third of their Dec. 20 meeting again discussing options and future costs for dispatching services for the town’s policeman, fire departments and first responders. They concluded they still lack enough information about county and state intentions to make a decision.

“We’ve all been at meetings all week long,” Town Manager Mary Sabins said, summarizing efforts to get more information from county commissioners, other town managers at an area meeting and the Regional Communications Center in Augusta.

Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus repeated that Vassalboro is looking at a significant increase in dispatch fees with the current proposed changes. First Responders are concerned about life-threatening delays if connecting different parts of the system is not simplified.

The other major topic Dec. 20 was whether to convert to LED (light-emitting diode) streetlights. Selectmen have considered a proposal from one of several companies offering LED lights; Central Maine Power Company recently joined the list, and Sabins likes their plan because it does not transfer maintenance responsibility to the town.

Selectmen authorized her to sign an agreement with CMP, after an inventory to find out how many lights Vassalboro has, whether all are necessary and whether any more are needed.

Vassalboro is supposed to have 113 streetlights, Titus said. However, board member John Melrose said, CMP’s lists have been found not to be entirely accurate in other towns. He and Titus suggested a GIS map showing the lights and creation of a small committee to locate them and advise on additions or subtractions.

In other business, Sabins said the Vassalboro Historical Society’s representative signed the proposed lease with the town for the former East Vassalboro schoolhouse. Selectmen also signed.

Selectmen unanimously reappointed Catherine Coyne as registrar of voters for another two-year term.

The next regular Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening, Jan. 10, 2019.

Codes apprentice position to be re-advertised

by Mary Grow

At a brief Dec. 21 meeting, China selectmen agreed unanimously to re-advertise the position of codes enforcement apprentice, offering more hours, to try to attract more candidates.

Town Manager Dennis Heath told board members the original search for a person to work limited hours at a comparatively low rate brought four applications. The two people he considered best qualified declined the position; Heath concluded the town was proposing “too many constraints to get quality.”

He recommended, and selectmen approved, offering a 24-hour-a-week position, which would qualify the new person for benefits, with hours likely to increase with the new fiscal year beginning July 1, 2019. Selectmen agreed to let Heath negotiate a pay rate.

Heath said current codes officer Paul Mitnik intends to retire at the end of calendar year 2019. The new person is expected to acquire the necessary certifications to succeed him.

In the only other business Dec. 21, selectmen decided not to buy an extended warranty on the town’s new Ventrac tractor.

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is currently scheduled for Monday evening, Jan. 7, 2019. Heath said he intends to have a draft 2019-2020 budget ready for review.

Final farewell to Killdeer Lodge

Daniel Constanzer, a China Village firefighter, monitors a controlled burning of what remains of the old Killdeer Lodge. (photo courtesy of Mary Ann Constanzer)

The fireplace stands alone as the lodge burns. (photo courtesy of Mary Ann Constanzer)

(Read our story on the history of Killdeer Lodge here.)

On December 15, China Village Fire Department conducted a controlled burning of the old Killdeer Lodge, on Lakeview Drive, in China. The structure that housed memories of a time gone by was burned to the ground and, as so many endings we experience, we are grateful for the memories that can never die or simply go up in smoke. Fire chief Tim Theriault, and volunteer firefighter Daniel Constanzer, left, were on site throughout the day assuring it was done in a safe manner.

Despite a brief period when a bit of wind presented itself, all went well. Middle photo, the famous fireplace stands in the background of the smoldering remains. Below left, inside Killdeer Lodge in its heyday. Below, Joan Ferrone can be seen, in 1995, dressed in a costume in front of the lodge when it housed her husband Jim’s model train business.

Killdeer lodge with its front porch intact (photo courtesy of Jim Ferrone)


The inside of Killdeer Lodge (photo courtesy of Jim Ferrone)

Planners to send proposed land use revision to selectmen

by Mary Grow

The three China Planning Board members present at the Dec. 11 board meeting voted unanimously to forward proposed revisions to the town’s Land Development Code to selectmen and to recommend selectmen put the revisions on the warrant for the March 2019 town business meeting.

Planners need more time to work on two other sets of changes that might also be presented to voters in March, amendments to shoreland zoning standards to bring town requirements into conformity with state standards and revisions to the list of definitions in the Land Development Code.

Codes Enforcement Officer Paul Mitnik recommended the Land Development Code changes primarily to eliminate inconsistencies between different sections. The proposed amendments to definitions, too, are primarily to make them consistent and clear.

Board members asked Mitnik to draft language for revising the shoreland guidelines. They discussed draft definition changes, approving some and postponing final action on others.

Board members intend to hold a public hearing next year to explain any changes that will appear on the town meeting warrant.

Because the next regular planning board meeting date was Dec. 25, board members skipped it and scheduled their next meeting for Jan. 8, 2019.

Windsor town office to close early on Christmas Eve

The Windsor Town Office will be open at 9 a.m. on Monday, December 24, but will close early, at 12:30 p.m., in observance of the Christmas holiday. The town office will be closed Tuesday, December 25, and Wednesday, December 26, and reopen on Thursday, December 27, at 9 a.m.

The transfer station will be open 3 – 8 p.m., on Wednesday, December 26.

Holiday hours at China Town Office

The China Town Office will be closed Monday, December 24, and Tuesday, December 25, in observance of the Christmas holiday. The office will be closing at noon on Monday, December 31, and will be closed on Tuesday, January 1, 2019.

The transfer station will be closed Christmas day and New Year’s day.

Police chief’s job description finally approved

by Mary Grow

At their Dec. 6 meeting, Vassalboro selectmen finally approved the police chief’s job description they have been revising for the last couple months, with one final revision.

They also approved Town Manager Mary Sabins’ plan for a town staff pre-Christmas party.

Otherwise, they continued discussion of ongoing items, like emergency services dispatching, the role of the Budget Committee and potential solar power development and added a new – and expensive – topic, the Public Works Department’s aged grader and other needs.

The dispatching issue matters to emergency services in most Kennebec County municipalities because of proposed changes at the county and state level. Sabins expected to have more information for the selectmen’s Dec. 20 meeting, after a Kennebec County Commissioners’ meeting and a county town managers’ meeting at which she hopes the issue will be discussed.

At previous meetings, selectmen have been given preliminary information suggesting that in 2019-20 the cost of dispatching fire, rescue and police services could double, from about $30,000 a year to about $60,000 a year.

Public Works Foreman Eugene Field told selectmen the town’s 1991 grader needs a major repair that will cost around $23,000, plus $1,400 trucking to the repair shop, and should have another $5,000 to $10,000 worth of minor repairs while it’s being worked on.

A new grader would cost around $240,000, he said, a used one from $50,000 up, rental a little over $3,000 a week if a rental grader were available when the town crew needed it. Field and crew members use the grader for unpaved roads spring and fall, and it serves as a back-up for the plow trucks in case one breaks down.

Field also warned selectmen two large culverts need major work, either replacement or repair.

The discussion ended with selectmen commenting that Fields’ problems are even more expensive than the dispatching services they’ve been worrying about.

Budget Committee Chairman Rick Denico asked how that committee’s role is defined, pointing out that last year’s pre-town-meeting discussions strayed into policy issues, like considering whether to abolish the local police department rather than merely how much it should cost.

Vassalboro residents apparently established the committee many years ago without a job description or other rules, Sabins said.

Board member John Melrose has been looking into the possibility of installing solar panels on the roof of the Riverside Fire Station. He said he received one proposal that afternoon.

Melrose suggested selectmen ask town meeting voters for authorization to proceed with exploring the topic. If voters approve, he wants to look into more than one option, as competition appears to be developing.

The next regular Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening, Dec. 20.

Selectmen vote to not appeal decision on property

by Mary Grow

The four China selectmen at a Dec. 5 special meeting voted unanimously not to appeal a legal decision involving a property on Three Mile Pond.

Town office staff foreclosed on the property because of unpaid 2015 taxes. Owner Stacey O’Connor filed suit claiming she was not properly notified of the impending foreclosure. Kennebec County Superior Court Justice William Stokes upheld her position.

Town Manager Dennis Heath explained to selectmen that initial notices went to an address in Maine. After O’Connor notified the town that she now lives in Arizona, a subsequent notice was sent by certified mail to her Arizona address and was returned unclaimed. Office staff therefore used the Maine address for the final notice; it too was returned to the town.

Town Clerk Rebecca Hapgood testified at an earlier hearing that she also sent two notices to the Arizona address by regular mail. Neither was returned to the town. In her experience, Hapgood said, people are more likely to pick up regular mail for which they do not have to sign.

Justice Stokes, citing Maine Law Court decisions, ruled that the town should have used certified mail sent to the Arizona address, even though it appeared not to have worked, in order to satisfy legal requirements for foreclosure with the strictness required by law.

Town office staff acted in good faith, Stokes wrote. But state statute requires strict compliance, and strict compliance meant sending a notice to the last known address – Arizona – by certified mail. He therefore voided the foreclosure.

Heath said the law does not require proof that a notice was received, but merely evidence that it was sent in proper form. Henceforth, he said, town office staff will follow the form.

The manager said O’Connor will be given 30 days to redeem the property by paying 2015 taxes and charges.

Selectman Ronald Breton interrupted discussion of the O’Connor case to ask whether it was proper for board Chairman Robert MacFarland, who was absent, to have appointed Jeffrey LaVerdiere acting chairman. The board responded by electing LaVerdiere chairman for the meeting.

Since then Breton has proposed creating a selectmen’s ordinance that would cover issues like choice of a temporary chairman. Board members voted unanimously after the November election that Robert’s Rules of Order will govern their proceedings.

Selectmen adopt mailbox policy; ask for opt out on business equipment tax

by Mary Grow

China selectmen made numerous decisions as they went through a long and varied agenda at their Dec. 10 meeting, and still have topics left over for future discussion.

They unanimously adopted the mailbox policy discussed at their Nov. 26 meeting, which sets standards for placing mailboxes along state and town roads and says that if a plow truck damages a mailbox, the owner, not the town, is responsible (see this article from Nov. 29).

They unanimously approved Town Manager Dennis Heath’s wording of a resolution to the Maine legislature asking that municipalities be allowed to opt out of collecting personal property taxes on business equipment, an action authorized by voters in November (see this article from Nov. 8).

Heath’s request emphasized the personal property tax as a disincentive to business in Maine and urged legislators to promote business by amending state law to make collecting it optional.

Selectmen appointed Rebecca Hapgood to two positions that she already fills, human resources director for an indefinite term and registrar of voters for two years beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

They approved hiring Dawn Kilgore, of Sidney, as secretary to the planning board and board of appeals. Heath said Tracy Cunningham, who has been the frequently-commended planning board secretary, is resigning the position.

Selectmen reviewed Heath’s rankings of four candidates for the new position of apprentice to the codes officer and authorized him to offer the position to the highest-ranked.

The apprentice will work 18 hours a week, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at a pay rate of $15 an hour, and will be on probation for the first six months, Heath said. When the idea of an apprentice was proposed, he or she was seen as a potential successor to Codes Officer Paul Mitnik when Mitnik is ready to retire.

Heath wants to replace the current across-the-board annual raises for town employees with merit raises and bonuses. As a step in that direction, he asked for and received selectmen’s approval for $2,400 in holiday bonuses.

The manager is also revising China’s personnel policy, with input from town employees. Selectmen scheduled a special workshop meeting on the policy changes, which need their approval, for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 27.

Another change Heath recommended was sending his draft of the 2019-2020 budget to the budget committee by mid-January and having the budget committee forward it to selectmen, instead of starting with the selectmen as in past years. After discussion of the reversal and of the pre-March-town-meeting timetable, Selectman Jeffrey LaVerdiere suggested, and his colleagues and Heath agreed, that the two boards should review the proposed budget simultaneously and hope they reach the same recommendations.

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is currently scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 21, because it would normally have fallen on Christmas Eve. By then Heath hopes to have more information on the extended warranty on the public works department’s new Ventrac tractor, which public works head Gary Cummings expects will be delivered before Christmas.