Old items, new one, on selectmen’s agenda

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen are slated to continue discussion of four items and add a new one at their Thursday, Nov. 15, meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. in the town office meeting room.

The continuing items are options for emergency-services dispatching, as the state prepares changes that will be effective next summer; the possibility of the town acquiring or leasing the Riverside Fire Station, now owned by the volunteer fire department; the police chief’s job description; and information on the pros and cons of converting to LED streetlights.

Also on the Nov. 15 agenda is discussion of the cable franchise renewal process.

Interested residents are welcome at all Vassalboro selectmen’s meetings.

Furlong gets budget position; Wilkens to planning board

by Mary Grow

CHINA – A miscellany of reports and updates highlighted the China selectmen’s Nov. 13 meeting.

Town Clerk Rebecca Hapgood gave board members results from Nov. 6 write-in ballots in local elections. After discussion with the two residents who tied for the at-large position on the budget committee, Jeffery Furlong will hold the position. James Wilkens has been elected to the at-large seat on the planning board.

Wilkens is vacating the alternate at-large position. Anyone from anywhere in town interested in becoming the planning board’s alternate member is invited to contact the town office.

Ronald Breton, elected to the board of selectmen, said he has resigned from the Tax Increment Finance Committee and as one of two China representatives on the Kennebec Regional Development Authority board that oversees FirstPark. Selectman Irene Belanger said selectmen need to appoint a successor to the KRDA board; no action was taken.

Hapgood also announced the annual Four Seasons Club rabies clinic, scheduled for noon Saturday, Jan. 5, at the clubhouse on Lakeview Drive. More information will be available.

Town Manager Dennis Heath said the preliminary survey of the town-owned land off Lakeview Drive has started, with A. E. Hodsdon engineers doing the work. Voters approved spending $5,000 for the review, aimed at evaluating the land’s suitability for an emergency services building and perhaps a community center.

Two transfer station employees had their hours increased to 21 a week, entitling them to benefits, effective Nov. 7, after voters approved additional money, the manager said. The third question voters approved asked selectmen to ask the Maine legislature to allow China to stop collecting personal property taxes. Heath said the request is being drafted. Board members advised seeking Maine Municipal Association legal advice on the wording.

Transfer Station Manager Tim Glidden and selectmen talked again about disposal of used tires and discussed what kind of extended warranty would be most useful on the new Ventrac tractor selectmen plan to buy (see the Nov. 8 issue of The Town Line, page 3). Glidden said unless he hears a better idea within a day, he plans to contract to send tires to the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company. A decision on the warranty was postponed to give Heath time to get more details.

The town manager said the sidewalk for the new bridge on Causeway Street was to be laid Nov. 14, and paving was scheduled for Nov. 15. The project contractor, Consolidated Land Technologies of China, put conduits for electrical wires under the roadway, an addition to the original contract for which Heath said CLT did not charge the town.

Board members re-elected Robert MacFarland board chairman and Belanger board secretary. They accepted Breton’s offer to represent the board in the Kennebec County Legislative Delegation.

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is currently scheduled for Monday evening, Nov. 26.

Vassalboro revised lease sent to historical society

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen took care, at least temporarily, of one of the three repeat issues on their Nov. 1 agenda.

The two board members present voted to send a revised draft of the town’s lease agreement with the Vassalboro Historical Society for the former East Vassalboro schoolhouse to the Historical Society, with a request for approval or suggested changes by the end of the year.

The agreement deals with what costs the town pays and what the Historical Society pays and the way the annual town allotment to the society is handled. The revisions are intended to clarify respective responsibilities and make it easier for the Society to budget.

Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus and member John Melrose discussed updated information on converting to LED streetlights and concluded the situation is still evolving, so a decision should be postponed.

At Melrose’s suggestion they tabled without discussion a revised draft description of the town police officer’s duties, which Melrose said he could not accept and assumed Titus could, creating a tie vote.

Their other decisions were to close the town office Monday, Dec. 24, as well as Christmas Day, and to schedule selectmen’s meetings for Nov. 15, Dec. 6 and Dec. 20. The transfer station will be open as usual the weekend before Christmas.

The future of emergency services dispatching generated a long discussion with Police Chief Mark Brown, Vassalboro First Responders member Peter Allen and resident Frank Hatch, who works for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office.

Currently several dispatch centers serve the Central Maine area, using two different systems. The systems have two parts, a public safety answering point (PSAP) that receives emergency calls and the dispatch center or centers, like the state’s Regional Communications Center (RCC) in Augusta, the sheriff’s office and the Waterville Police Department, to which PSAP employees forward the calls. The dispatch center in turn calls the appropriate law enforcement or medical service.

Vassalboro firefighter Mike Vashon thinks Maine needs to get its act together. New Hampshire has one system for the entire state, plus a backup system, he said.

Changes are impending at the state level. Towns will have a chance, and some might need, to contract with a different service, in or outside Kennebec County. Several people at the Vassalboro meeting think any change is likely to increase costs.

The state’s deadline for changes is June 30, 2019. Vassalboro is all set through the current fiscal year, which ends that day.

Selectmen agreed to invite Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason and RCC Director Cliff Wells to their Nov. 15 meeting to continue the discussion.

LaVerdiere, Breton, Mills-Stevens win seats on board of selectmen

by Mary Grow

In local elections Nov. 6, China voters re-elected incumbent Selectmen Jeffrey LaVerdiere and Donna Mills-Stevens and chose former Selectmen Ronald Breton over Wayne Chadwick to fill the seat vacated by Neil Farrington.

According to Town Clerk Rebecca Hapgood, LaVerdiere got 1,142 votes, Breton 966, Mills-Stevens 960 and Chadwick 945. Farrington was elected without opposition to the Regional School Unit #18 Board of Directors. Unopposed for re-election were Planning Board Chairman Tom Miragliuolo and member Toni Wall and Budget Committee members Tom Rumpf, Tim Basham and Jean Conway. The winners of write-in contests for at-large seats on the planning board and the budget committee remained to be determined as of Tuesday night.

Voters approved three of five local referendum questions. They refused to abolish the quorum requirement for town meetings, by a vote of 505 yes to 1,241 no; and they refused to authorize selectmen to approve requests for Tax Increment Finance funds between town meetings, by a vote of 788 yes to 1,102 no.

The three questions that voters approved:

  • Direct selectmen to petition the legislature to let China stop collecting personal property taxes (yes, 1,003; no, 804);
  • Authorize spending up to $5,000 for a preliminary study of town-owned land on Lakeview Drive to see if it is suitable for a new emergency services building and a community center (yes, 1,240; no, 657); and
  • Authorize use of money from the sale of tax-acquired properties to fund pay increases at the transfer station this year, as two employees add enough hours to entitle them to benefits (yes, 1,173; no, 743).

Hapgood said a total of 2,058 ballots were cast, not a town record but a good turn-out for a non-presidential-election year.

Farrington given recognition plaque for years of service on board of selectmen

by Mary Grow

Neil Farrington

At the Oct. 29 China selectmen’s meeting, Town Manager Dennis Heath presented retiring Selectman Neil Farrington a plaque recognizing his 14 years of service on the board and proclaiming Oct. 29, 2018, as Neil Lawrence Farrington Day in China.

Farrington was still on the Nov. 6 local ballot, as an unopposed candidate for election to the Regional School Unit (RSU) #18 Board of Directors.

Public works to get new tractor and attachments

by Mary Grow

China selectmen voted unanimously to buy the public works department a new Ventrac tractor with equipment for bush hogging, sweeping and plowing South China’s sidewalks.

The negotiated price of $44,000 will come from the reserve fund voters created to buy capital equipment. Before acting at their Oct. 29 meeting, selectmen carefully reviewed proposed savings of over $12,000 a year that Public Works Foreman Gary Cummings and crew member Shawn Reed said should pay for the machine in about three and a half years.

Almost three-quarters of the anticipated savings come from not contracting to have South China sidewalks plowed. Reed and Cummings have worn out a residential-grade John Deere tractor on the task; they expect the commercial-grade Ventrac to handle it better and longer; and the lower of two quotes they got for contracting the job was $9,000.

Questioned about maintenance, Reed estimated the tractor would use up to $400 worth of fluids and other consumables a year. The town crew will do the maintenance work.

Yes, Cummings told Selectman Donna Mills-Stevens, the crew has time to do the jobs assigned to the Ventrac. Bush hogging, for example, does not need to be done weekly or on a fixed schedule.

Other business at the Oct. 29 selectmen’s meeting focused more on reports than on decision-making, although board members did make one more unanimous decision.

Disposing of used tires has become a problem for China and other towns. Transfer Station Manager Tim Grotton said the Penobscot Energy Recovery Company (PERC) will take tires, plus ash and demolition debris if needed to fill up a load, at the lowest price he has found. Selectmen unanimously authorized Town Manager Dennis Heath to make an agreement with PERC, unless Selectman Jeff LaVerdiere, who has also been researching possibilities, finds a cheaper alternative.

Cummings and Heath reported the redesigned fire pond on Neck Road is completed. The manager reported that the new culvert replacing the Causeway bridge at the head of China Lake’s east basin was set in place that day.

After a low turnout at the annual household hazardous waste disposal day in Winslow, Grotton recommended China officials consider not participating for a year or two. China pays Winslow to allow China residents to bring in hazardous waste.

At Heath’s invitation, representatives from Spectrum Generations and the Family Violence Project, two organizations likely to request town funds at the March 2019 town business meeting, made short presentations about their organizations’ services.

Since Nov. 12 is a holiday, Heath proposes scheduling the next regular selectmen’s meeting for Tuesday evening, Nov. 13. When the meeting date is set, it will be listed on the calendar on the town’s web page.

Four residents attend referendum public hearing

by Mary Grow

The four people who attended the China selectmen’s Oct. 25 public hearing on China’s Nov. 6 local referendum questions had plenty of time to get their questions answered and their comments noted.

The hearing was recorded as a video; people with the right computer equipment should be able to view it by opening “Live Stream” on the town’s web site.

The third question generated the longest discussion. It asks if voters want to use $5,000 from Tax Increment Finance (TIF) money for a preliminary concept plan for a consolidated emergency services building and perhaps a separate community center on town-owned land off Lakeview Drive, opposite the former Candlewood Camps.

Town Manager Dennis Heath said “consolidated” does not mean China’s three volunteer fire departments will share the building. Weeks Mills and South China would not be affected. The China Village department, which is constrained by its location close to wetlands at the head of China Lake’s east basin, would be the main tenant. Space would also be provided for China Rescue, the policemen who are in and out of town and perhaps for Delta Ambulance. The manager said if there were a building, Delta might station an ambulance in town. Residents have ranked a community center as important on two surveys, Heath said.

The question is on the ballot to see if a majority of voters want selectmen to continue to pursue the projects.

Resident Denis Breton would prefer the town consolidate emergency services in the town office area, sell the 34-acre Lakeview Drive property and “stop growing the empire.” For community events, the town has two schools with gyms and cafeterias, and the Baptist Conference Center building can be rented (expensively, Heath commented).

Resident Sandra Kostron replied that the schools could not be expected to store equipment, for example for a fitness course.

Selectman Irene Belanger said the China for a Lifetime Committee is looking into these issues.

Discussion of the first ballot question, whether to repeal the quorum ordinance, began with brief explanations and turned into consideration of alternatives.

The ordinance has been in effect since at least 1990, passed by voters in response to complaints that town policies and expenditures were being determined by a small number of residents who chose to come to town meetings. Now, Heath said, the complaint is from town office staff, who spend many hours rounding up the 120 voters required to make a meeting legal.

Other suggested ways to bring more residents to meetings included shortening the meetings or rescheduling from a March Saturday morning to a June evening close to the state’s June election day. Instead of an open town meeting, China could do its business by written ballot, giving voters all day to get to the polls; or switch to a council and manager form of government.

A propos of the second question, asking if voters want to seek legislative exemption from the requirement to collect personal property taxes, Heath said the town gets about $100,000 annually from owners of business and farm machinery. He and Selectman Neil Farrington think if the town stopped collecting the tax, new and expanded businesses would help cover the loss.

Question four asks approval to use income this year from the sale of tax-acquired properties to increase two transfer station employees’ hours, entitling them to insurance benefits. In the future, funds would probably come from an increased transfer station budget.

Audience and board members joined in praising the transfer station staff.

The final local question asks voters to allow selectmen to spend up to $100,000 a year in TIF funds for economic development projects between town meetings, on recommendation of the TIF Committee.

Currently, selectmen can spend TIF funds only with voter approval. The March 2019 town meeting warrant included a list of proposed expenditures, like donations to the China Region Lakes Alliance and the annual China Community Days celebration, which voters approved.

Should a new proposal be presented this fall with a request for TIF funds, selectmen could not grant it until voters acted at the March 2019 meeting, unless they considered it so important they tried to get 120 voters to a special meeting before March.

The goal of the ballot question, summarized by Robert MacFarland, Chair of the Selectboard, is “to allow us not to squander an economic development opportunity because of time constraints.”

Voters will act on the questions, and on local elections and state questions, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, by written ballot. China polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the former portable classroom behind the town office. Absentee ballots are now available, and residents may vote before Nov. 6 at the town office during office hours.

Candidates state their positions on local issues at public forum

by Mary Grow

The Oct. 28 China candidates’ forum at the China Village library gave the four candidates for three seats on the Board of Selectmen, plus retiring Selectman Neil Farrington, a chance to talk about their visions for the town’s future. After introductory statements, a question and answer session led to expanded answers and new topics, including some of the five local referendum questions.

China voters will elect town officials and decide the local referenda, along with state elections and referenda, on Nov. 6. China polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the portable classroom behind the town office.

All four local candidates are long-time China residents; Wayne Chadwick, Jeffrey LaVerdiere and Donna Mills-Stevens are businesspeople, Ronald Breton a retiree; all have some experience on local boards and committees. All think China needs growth, both economically, including services, and in population, especially young families. Speaking in alphabetical order, they emphasized the following points.

BRETON offered the most detailed list of things he would like to see done, including encouraging beneficial new businesses, adding health-related services and assisted living units for senior citizens, creating a youth center “to give kids something to do in town,” expanding high-speed internet access, reviewing the Land Use Ordinance, continuing to protect China Lake and Three Mile Pond and continuing recycling despite the drop-off in prices for recycled materials.

CHADWICK’s initial emphasis was on more responsible town spending and shrinking town government rather than growing it. LAVERDIERE, one of two incumbents seeking another term, also favors more control of town spending. He thinks selectmen should look at government from a business perspective, for example by trading equipment less frequently. He agreed with Breton on reviewing the Land Use Ordinance and commended the Alewife Restoration Initiative (ARI) as one reason “China Lake is doing pretty well.”

MILLS-STEVENS, also an incumbent, said her first year on the board and conversations with neighbors showed her some of the issues and problems; if re-elected she expects to contribute to solutions. She favors encouraging small businesses, like antique shops and a local farmers’ market; thinks the town needs a community center, centrally located and ideally near China Lake; and sees the new causeway and expanded access to the head of China Lake as another way to bring more people to town, “maybe more than we want sometimes.”

NEIL FARRINGTON, retiring from the selectboard and running unopposed for an open seat on the Regional School Unit (RSU) #18 Board of Directors, said after 14 years as a selectman complaining about the size of the school budget and the lack of information selectmen get about school matters, he decided to become a school insider. He plans to keep selectmen updated on directions the school unit is taking, programs and reasons for expenditure requests.

There seemed to be no opposition among the candidates to expanding and improving internet service. Breton, Chadwick and LaVerdiere spoke in favor of senior housing and health facilities, as long as the town assisted a private developer, for example with tax breaks, and did not own the facilities.

Later discussion returned to the topic of a community center, in response to audience questions and in relation to the Nov. 6 referendum question asking voters to appropriate $5,000 for preliminary study of using the town-owned property near the north end of Lakeview Drive. Opinions became more complicated.

All four candidates for selectman support allocating the requested $5,000 for exploration. Breton is most enthusiastic about going on, assuming satisfactory results, to create a community center. The emergency services building which is also part of the question got little discussion; LaVerdiere thinks it would be too expensive.

Chadwick is the principal opponent of a community center, citing other meeting places available in town and telling Breton activities for young people could be expanded without an expensive new building. His suggestions sparked unanswered questions about how hard it is to book school facilities – Farrington will find out – and whether and how much the town would pay for other alternatives, a question Mills-Stevens said selectmen should investigate.

Audience member Justine Knizeski objected to the two-part question, saying it should have been limited to asking for exploratory funds, instead of also prejudging possible uses. Farrington pointed out an error: the property in question is about 34 acres, not the 39.11 acres specified in the question.

On the issue of economic development, there was broad agreement among panelists and audience members about encouraging small and home-based businesses and services and not inviting big-box stores.

Chadwick, without endorsing big-box stores in general, put in a good word for the South China Hannaford, which many people now find convenient. Bigger stores “have their place if they’re well thought-out and planned,” he said.

Audience member Ann Austin, who heads the China Food Pantry, commended Hannaford for frequent donations. Such community involvement is not typical of every large corporation, she added.

In response to Jodi Blackinton’s question about getting more people involved in town business (related to the referendum question about the Quorum Ordinance), panelists and audience members repeated, with variations, many of the suggestions made at the Oct. 25 selectmen’s hearing. There was no consensus and limited optimism.

Pease announces for planning board

Hanson Road resident James Pease is a write-in candidate for the at-large seat on the China Planning Board. Pease said he is seeking the position because he sees a need; asked about relevant experience, he cited his time as secretary of the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) while he was a Rhode Island State Marshal.

New bridge construction

Construction has begun on the new bridge on the Causeway at the Head of China Lake. (Photo courtesy of Neil Farrington)

Vassalboro town manager incoming MMA president

Mary Sabins, Vassalboro Town Manager

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Town Manager Mary Sabins is the incoming president of the Maine Municipal Association’s executive committee – or, in effect, head for a year of the state-wide organization that offers many services to Maine municipalities.

Sabins says most of her job is running board meetings. With a board she describes as “mutually respectful, civil, able to disagree without being disagreeable,” and an executive director, Steven Gove, with 30 years’ experience with the organization, she expects that part will not be difficult.

Board members are municipal officers, elected or appointed. Sabins’ predecessors were the mayor of South Portland and the Kennebunkport town manager.

The executive committee’s role is primarily setting policies and doing strategic planning for the organization. The president is in charge of overseeing the annual MMA convention in October and coordinating the state delegation’s approach to Maine Congress-people during the annual March meeting of the National League of Cities, held in Washington, D. C.

Sabins said almost all Maine towns and cities are MMA members, paying annual dues based on population and valuation. Among the organization’s major offerings to its members are free legal advice, multiple insurance plans that some municipalities find more advantageous than commercial offerings, technical services, assistance with personnel and labor issues, training for municipal staff and officials and a small grant program for workers’ safety equipment that Sabins said has benefited Vassalboro firefighters.

The organization’s mission “is to provide professional services to local governments throughout Maine and to advocate for their common interests at the state and national levels.” The MMA website, memun.org, lists services along with current news and other useful information.

Sabins has been active in MMA for five years. Before accepting her first position, she got Vassalboro selectmen’s approval and permission to take time off from her Vassalboro job as needed. At the next selectmen’s meeting after her election, selectmen and town office staff gave her a congratulatory potted plant that decorates her desk in the town office.