WINDSOR: Nuisance ordinance to be reviewed by board

by Sandy Isaac

Dog barking and the Veterans’ Memorial fundraising efforts were major topics at Windsor’s Selectmen’s meeting on July 9.

A recent dog barking incident sparked conversations about ordinances at the last two selectmen’s meetings. Animal Control Officer Kim Bolduc-Bartlett attended the July 9 meeting at the request of the Town Manager Theresa Haskell.

During the June 25 meeting, a resident requested re-examination of the Windsor nuisance ordinance and asked that it include wording regarding barking dogs. The resident expressed concerns over futile attempts to maintain tranquility in her neighborhood due to several barking dogs.

Currently, state laws do not address dog barking. Some municipal ordinances do. For example, Sidney’s dog nuisance ordinance states, “Any owner or keeper causing or permitting a dog to bark, howl, or yelp continuously for twenty (20) minutes or intermittently for one (1) hour or more shall be in violation of this section.”

The town of China has a kennel ordinance with similar wording, stating that “the owner or operator of a kennel…shall not permit the dogs therein to disturb the peace of any person in the vicinity of such kennel by barking, howling, baying, whining, yelping or other loud and unreasonably long or frequent periods.”

However, Windsor’s nuisance ordinance does not mention dog barking. Therefore state police and animal control officers are not able to proceed farther than checking on the animals’ welfare and making sure all animals are properly licensed.

During the June 25 meeting, the selectmen agreed to do additional research, contact the town attorney and re-discuss the subject during the July 9 meeting. On July 9, Bolduc-Bartlett presented copies of her reports on the dogs of whom the resident had complained. Since the resident was unable to be present, selectmen tabled further discussion.

Joyce Perry, chairman of the Windsor Veterans’ Memorial Committee, informed the selectmen about fundraising efforts for the Veterans’ Memorial, including a free concert by the Downeast Brass Band at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 25, at the Town Hall, featuring ‘60s music and discussion of the history of the music.

During the upcoming Windsor Fair, the memorial committee was offered two tables, one for items to sell and one to display information. The Windsor Historical Society offered the first table for free but planned to charge for the second. Haskell inspired the selectmen to each donate $5 to pay for the second table. She added her $5 to bring the total to $30: $20 for the table and $10 donated to the Veterans’ Memorial.

The Memorial will be located on Ridge and Reed roads and incorporate the existing monument. Original cost estimates for the project were over $45,000. Since 2017, over $14,500 has been raised through beano games at the Windsor Fair, flower sales, pie auctions, public suppers, other concerts and private donations. Windsor voters appropriated $19,000 from the last two budgets. In addition, J.C.Stone Inc., of Jefferson, donated two stone benches for the site. However, the committee still needs to raise over $11,000 to complete the project.

In her capacity as cemetery sexton, Perry provided an update on cemetery maintenance. The Windsor Neck Cemetery’s fencing has been replaced with poles and chains, thanks to the public works crew. While replacing the fencing, some granite with attached iron piping had been found. Due to safety concerns, the public works department will request permission from residents abutting the cemetery to remove the granite. A pile of rocks in the North Windsor Cemetery will be removed at the same time. If usable, all of the rock and granite collected with be repurposed on other projects.

In other business, Public Works Supervisor Keith Hall gave an update on preparing for the anticipated installation of a new diesel tank. The cement pad has been set and Hall is submitting drawings of the project’s layout to the state fire marshal for approval. Hall is requesting pricing for a 1,000-gallon and a 2,000-gallon double walled tank for comparison. Once installed, the tank will then be enclosed in a protective cement barrier. Although money for the tank was not part of the budget for the current fiscal year, selectmen deemed it necessary after John Moody announced his pending retirement. Moody has supplied the town with around-the-clock fuel service; selectmen want to have an alternative in place prior to snow plowing season.

The fire department also needs to find a source for after-hours fuel. Selectmen are discussing options for allowing firefighters to access the new tank.

Selectmen planned the final steps in acquiring the new Ford super-duty truck for the public works department. Arrangements will be made for the publics work crew to travel to Massachusetts to pick it up. Despite extensive research, officials could not find a locally-available truck meeting the town’s specifications.

The selectmen hold their next regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, July 23.

CHINA: Medical marijuana plan presented to planners; can’t rule yet

by Mary Grow

Clifford Glinko gave his well-prepared presentation on his proposed medical marijuana facility on Route 3, in South China, at a July 9 public hearing – to no audience, and without enough detail to satisfy the China Planning Board, which can’t rule yet anyway.

Glinko has applied for a marijuana growing facility with a retail storefront for marijuana patients in the Route 3 building that has housed Mabel Charles’ used book store and Maine-ly Trains, among other past businesses. He was initially scheduled to present the application at a June 11 meeting, but was not notified. In his absence, board members scheduled the public hearing.

Three neighbors of the project attended the June 11 meeting. Glinko said he talked with them before his July 9 presentation.

Another development between the two meetings was Planning Board Chairman Tom Miragliuolo familiarizing himself with the new state law’s “opt in” provision. According to information from the Maine Municipal Association, municipalities must vote to allow medical marijuana operations before any can be approved. Those in operation before December 13, 2018, are grandfathered, so Nathan White’s business farther west on Route 3 is not affected.

Glinko brought to the July 9 hearing a slide presentation in which he explained why a medical marijuana facility would be a good neighbor – odor controls, normal business hours, not much traffic, extensive security – and described his family and his interests. His wife Tracey is a dentist who heads Kennebec Valley Dental Arts, in Fairfield.

Glinko said he does not use marijuana himself, but became interested in medical marijuana after hearing some of the dental patients, including one who was on chemotherapy, describe it as “better than opiates.”

Miragliuolo asked for more specific details about proposed business operations. Glinko referred the question to his consultant, Jared Jandreau, who prepared the application with guidance from former codes officer Paul Mitnik.

After a discussion of the many definitions in state law, whether the facility would be closer to Grace Academy than the law distancing marijuana operations from schools allows, different odor control methods and related topics, board members remained in need of more information.

Glinko and Miragliuolo agreed an “opt-in” town vote is a preliminary necessity. If China voters allow medical marijuana businesses, Glinko can present a more detailed application, Miragliuolo said. New Codes Officer William Butler offered suggestions for revisions.

The July 9 meeting was the first in China for Butler, a former Maine Department of Environmental Protection staffer and codes officer elsewhere in Maine. Butler said he applied for the job after Mitnik, a former DEP colleague, told him he did not want the full-time position China officials decided they need.

“Paul was incredibly efficient,” Butler commented, keeping up on things during his two days a week.

The next China Planning Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, July 23.

China CEO Mitnik moves on with regret and pleasure

Former China Codes Enforcement Officer Paul Mitnik. (Contributed photo)

by Mary Grow

“I’m saying goodbye to China,” Paul Mitnik said toward the end of our June 25 conversation in his office in the town office. After four years as codes enforcement officer, licensed plumbing inspector and building inspector, Mitnik is moving on, sooner than he intended, with a mixture of regret and pleasure.

Regret because he has enjoyed working in China. Most people are “friendly and want to do the right thing,” and “I like the [Town Office] staff a lot – they work as a team and get along really well,” he said.

Pleasure because “I’m kind of excited about entering another chapter of my life.” Mitnik has three jobs already: as the two-day-a-week codes officer and plumbing inspector in Wayne, where he’s worked since May; as Palermo’s very part-time plumbing inspector; and as an on-call construction inspector with Augusta-based Kleinfelder engineers.

He said Wayne is another nice town with a pleasant town office staff. As in his previous jobs, he’s in a town with lakes – nine, he said – and therefore handles shoreland zoning issues with which he’s very familiar. Mitnik expressed appreciation to former China Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux and the selectboard who hired him four years ago as a part-time codes officer. He’s worked Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and occasionally, especially when he first came and had to learn about China, Wednesdays.

This spring, he said, the current town manager and selectboard decided the codes officer’s position should be full-time. Mitnik was not interested; this is a man who’s already retired twice, from the state Department of Environmental Protection and from the town of Manchester, and wants to keep on working without committing to 40 hours a week.

He therefore resigned, earlier than he had planned. He considers the town action “kind of like a breach of contract,” since he was hired for a part-time job, but instead of arguing found the Wayne position.

In Mitnik’s opinion, “You don’t need a full-time codes officer here [in China],” as his four years as a part-timer have demonstrated.

Mitnik’s full-time replacement was hired late in June, after two false starts. The first advertisements brought no qualified applicants (because, Mitnik believes, the salary offered was too low) and the first person hired left after two weeks. Now selectmen have hired William “Bill” Butler, another ex-DEP employee whom Mitnik commends as knowledgeable and experienced.

When he worked as a Department of Environmental Protection environmental engineer, Mitnik had “a technical job with tight deadlines.” Being a codes officer is harder, he said, because “You have to know so much more.”

A good codes officer, he said, has to be a psychologist and a policeman, able to be patient with the people who need and appreciate assistance and with critics.

One piece of his job that Mitnik has enjoyed in China but will give up in Wayne is applying MUBEC, the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code. Under current law, MUBEC applies in municipalities with at least 4,000 residents; Wayne is too small. MUBEC requires inspections at different stages as a new building goes up. Some towns use third-party inspectors; Mitnik thinks having a town employee qualified as a building inspector is more effective and less expensive.

Builders receive a list of required inspections and are supposed to notify the inspector as they’re ready for each one. Where an out-of-town inspector might not follow up, Mitnik used a spread-sheet to keep track and remind builders.

The code authorizes inspectors to fine builders who neglect notification requirements and to make them tear down recent construction to reveal earlier work. Mitnik said he’d be unlikely to have something torn down, except maybe a deck built without a permit and illegally close to a water body.

Mitnik offered China officials and residents two pieces of advice on his way out: protect your water quality, and try to change China’s image as business-unfriendly.

Good water quality is vital all over Maine to keep up the tourism that supports the state’s economy. Mitnik recommends strict enforcement of shoreland ordinances, especially limits on development within 100 feet of a water body. He called China’s Phosphorus Control Ordinance “a great thing,” but pointed out that it is “badly outdated” and recommended an update, especially to add alternative techniques to control run-off instead of relying so heavily on buffer systems.

Mitnik said during his first year the planning board reviewed 18 business-related applications. Now it’s three or four a year. Yet, Mitnik said, in a state that’s considered too far from the rest of the country and too cold to attract big industries, small businesses are vital.

Townspeople “really should consider zoning,” he said, realizing his view is unpopular. If one deterrent to business is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome, zoning helps: it designates areas where commercial development is welcome and protects residential neighborhoods where business is not wanted.

With a zoning ordinance, “people are in a way losing rights,” but the town is “encouraging and controlling growth,” in Mitnik’s view. Wayne has had zoning since 1972, he added.

Vassalboro selectmen wrap up financial matters as new fiscal year begins

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen spent most of their June 27 meeting, the last in the 2018-19 fiscal year, wrapping up financial matters and starting FY 2019-2020.

For the new year, selectmen approved a long list of committee and other appointments. Most appointments were re-appointments; the main exception was the Recreation Committee, which has six new members out of eight.

Town Manager Mary Sabins explained retiring Recreation Director Dan Ouellette recommended making the people in charge of each sport, known as “commissioners,” committee members, instead of having two different groups. Danielle Sullivan is the new director, and the 2019-2020 committee members are Stephen Polley, secretary; Jacob Marden, treasurer; Marc Cote, in charge of fundraising; Sarah Lavallee, in charge of the snack shack; Jamie Willette, soccer commissioner; Mary Presti, softball; Kyle Allen, baseball; and Scott Fitts, basketball.

At the June town meeting voters appropriated $15,730 for the recreation department.

The list of appointments includes a revived Trail Committee, composed of caretakers for various town recreational and conservation lands. Members are Selectman John Melrose, whose idea it was, and Maverick Lowery, Richard Behr, Phil Allen, Holly Weidner and Kevin Wood.

Paul Begin is the new assistant director of Vassalboro First Responders. Sabins said he succeeds Peter Allen, who moved out of town.

As required by town ordinance, selectmen met with budget committee members who need to approve all year-end transfers of funds from one department to another. This past year, Sabins said, the streetlight account was over-expended by $335.07 (in June 2018 town meeting voters appropriated $18,250; in June 2019, $18,500).

The manager recommended covering the deficit with unspent money from the 2018-19 solid waste account. Selectmen and budget committee members unanimously approved.

Budget committee member Peggy Schaffer suggested at the next town meeting, voters be asked to authorize selectmen to transfer up to a certain amount – $500 or maybe $1,500 – without budget committee approval.

In other business, Rick Denico, Jr., sought permission to dispose of a mobile home on his family property. The mobile home is empty and Denico said appears to be uninhabitable; if it is deemed abandoned, he would like approval to demolish it. Sabins said owner Roger Frost has overdue property taxes, and the town has no desire to acquire the mobile home for unpaid taxes.

Since the abandonment question might be resolved before their next meeting July 18, selectmen agreed to abate 2017 taxes and charges if Denico acquired and got rid of the building. The assessor has authority to abate 2018 taxes, Sabins said.

After South China resident Bob Bennett’s critical letter (see The Town Line, June 20), Selectmen have had inquiries and comments about the outhouse at the East Vassalboro boat landing. Sabins said the building is on Kennebec Water District land, but maintenance is Vassalboro’s responsibility.

The manager said the facility is a holding tank that does not leach into China Lake. Central Maine Disposal Company pumps it annually. After visiting it, she called CMD and was told pumping should be done early in July.

The boat landing has a carry-in carry-out policy, so there are no trash cans and people leave trash in the outhouse. Sabins intends to look into having the building cleaned and perhaps repainted.

She said a review of town records and conversations with past town managers and Water District officials gave no information on why the town has maintenance responsibility.

Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus said he had been asked to install a bench at the Webber Pond boat landing. He plans to donate one that needs some of its wooden slats replaced, and Sabins plans to see what the public works crew can do to restore it.

Guardrail topic generates heated discussion; Cotta resigns from TIF committee

by Mary Grow

Money was the top issue at the China Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Committee’s July 1 meeting, but guardrails generated the most heated discussion.

The metal guardrails run along the shore at the head of China Lake, on both sides of the new causeway bridge and for a considerable distance east. Several TIF Committee members emphatically do not like them. They’re ugly and unsafe, committee members said.

Included in the plan for Phase I of the causeway project, they were installed by Wright-Pierce Engineering, Town Manager Dennis Heath said.

As Tom Michaud, who chairs the TIF Committee’s construction subcommittee, remembers, in November 2018 the committee asked Wright-Pierce to postpone the guardrails to Phase II. Selectmen decided they were necessary for safety and authorized going ahead with the installation.

Jim Wilkens said they are too hard to get over to be safe. He recently watched parents trying to help children climb over them to get out of the roadway.

Michaud said the guardrails need to be gone before the China Days children’s fishing derby the first weekend in August so derby entrants can fish along the shore. So far he’s been unable to get the project engineer, Mark McCluskey of A. E. Hodsdon, to respond to his complaints.

Heath said he would talk with McCluskey, and committee members considered a recommendation to selectmen. They scheduled a second meeting focused on construction issues on July 2.

Assuming Phase II includes changes to the guardrails, Heath said preliminary suggestions include shortening the existing ones or replacing them “with a more decorative pedestrian type instead of a vehicle type.”

[See also: Selectmen unanimously approve fire departments stipend plan; to submit to state for review]

Phase I is almost complete, Heath said; the two remaining items are resurfacing the sidewalk, which was damaged when rain fell before the concrete dried, and completing records. The TIF fund has about $139,000 earmarked for Phase II, plus money set aside for engineering. Heath is waiting for cost estimates from McCluskey.

The manager is the TIF Committee’s financial officer. In that capacity, he told committee members the TIF fund has an unaudited balance of close to $435,000, and he expects about another $360,000 in 2019-2020 from Central Maine Power Company tax payments on its power line and South China substation.

Heath told committee members they can recommend rearranging China’s TIF program to cover new economic development activities to meet changing times. Committee members voted to review the program every two years, and more often if needed. The TIF Committee makes program and funding recommendations to the selectboard; specific projects need town voters’ approval. So far projects have appeared on the warrant for the annual town meeting. In November 2018 voters turned down a request to let selectmen approve TIF fund requests between town meetings.

The next TIF Committee meeting is scheduled for Monday evening, July 29.

After the July 1 meeting adjourned, H. David Cotta announced his resignation from the committee, effective immediately.

Selectmen unanimously approve fire departments stipend plan; to submit to state for review

by Mary Grow

China selectmen hope they settled three issues, at least temporarily, at their July 8 meeting, while kicking a fourth question down the road for the third time.

The dispute with the town’s three volunteer fire departments over payment of stipends has been going on since the fall of 2018. After a discussion in executive session, Town Manager Dennis Heath summarized a path forward that board members unanimously approved.

The question of removing sections of the guardrails at the head of China Lake before they get in the way during the annual China Days fishing derby was a new item that Heath thinks can be taken care of in time. The executive session was followed by a second decision, on town office hours.

And selectmen for the third time declined to commit to buying a grader for the town’s public works department, planning to revisit the question with additional information at their July 22 meeting.

The issue with the volunteer firefighters is how to give them token compensation for their efforts without making them town employees under state or federal law. Voters approved money for stipends at the April 6 town business meeting.

The decision approved unanimously at the July 8 meeting was that the stipend-payment formula developed by the firefighters will be sent to the state labor board for review. If the labor board approves it, departments and town representatives will incorporate it in a new memorandum of understanding on disbursement policy, after which payments will begin.

The guardrails were installed as part of Phase I of the causeway project, running across the new bridge that was the focus of that phase and eastward along the shore. The Tax Increment Financing Committee discussed the guardrails the previous week, found them ugly and unsafe (although they are intended as a safety measure) and recommended selectmen see to changing them. Heath agreed July 8, describing them as “overkill” and “designed for an interstate.” The manager expects project contractor Comprehensive Land Technologies can remove the sections that block access to fishing areas before China Days, scheduled for Aug. 2 through 4. Heath had no cost estimate during the selectboard meeting, but emailed shortly afterward that CLT planned to charge $4,000 a day. The manager thought the work might take only one day.

If Phase I funds cannot cover the partial removal, the TIF Committee is ready to begin Phase II and can use that money, Heath said. Later in Phase II, he said, more attractive guardrails might replace the present ones.

[See also: Guardrail topic generates heated discussion; Cotta resigns from TIF committee]

The third decision, again after a discussion in closed session, was to change China town office hours effective Nov. 1. As of that date, the town office will no longer be open for three hours Saturday mornings; instead, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it will remain open an hour and a half later than it does now, until 5:30 p.m. In the only split decision of the evening, selectmen authorized the change on a 3-2 vote, with Chairman Robert MacFarland, Irene Belanger and Ronald Breton in favor and Jeffrey LaVerdiere and Donna Mills-Stevens opposed.

Yet another action after the executive session was board members’ report that they had conducted Heath’s annual review and found his job performance satisfactory (or, as Belanger put it, “He’s a keeper.”)

Selectmen have debated whether to buy an excavator since Public Works Manager Shawn Reed recommended that they do so, and at a subsequent meeting recommended a specific machine. In the interim, selectmen signed a contract with local contractor Wayne Chadwick to use his excavator this fiscal year.

Selectboard members argued again about Reed’s claim that buying would save money compared to contracting or renting. They discussed when Chadwick planned to work, and how long the price quote Reed had would be held. Deciding they needed more information on the last issue, they postponed a decision.

In other business at an unusually varied meeting:

  • Town Clerk Becky Hapgood announced that nomination papers for local elective offices will be available July 11; signed papers are due at the town office by closing time Sept. 6 for names to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. People whose terms end this year are Selectmen Belanger and MacFarland; Planning Board members Kevin Michaud (District One) and Ralph Howe (District Three, appointed in June to fill out an unexpired term); and Budget Committee members Robert Batteese (chairman), Kevin Maroon (District One) and Wayne Chadwick (District Three). In addition, the planning board alternate at-large seat, currently vacant, is due to be filled this year.
  • Board members unanimously renewed Craig and Richard Taylor’s license for Wildwood pawn shop outside China Village.
  • Hapgood said town office staff started the new fiscal year with a new budget format and new accounts to which they are still getting accustomed. Heath also introduced a new payroll processing system; asked if it is working well, Hapgood said it “still has kinks.” Policeman Tracy Frost agreed: he and his colleagues could not get it to accept their payrolls for the previous two weeks, he said.
  • The usually-routine job of approving items presented for payment took almost half an hour, mainly because Breton questioned Courtesy Boat Inspectors’ supervisor Mallory Chamberlain’s mileage claims and, briefly, why she put in for a salary in addition. China Region Lakes Alliance President Scott Pierz explained why Chamberlain drives several hundred miles a week on the job, and Hapgood pointed out that the packet of supporting documents included Chamberlain’s mileage report in standard town format.

An inside look at local volunteer fire departments

Firefighters participate in a “live burn” training exercise in Albion. (photo courtesy of Albion Fire & Rescue)

by Eric W. Austin

In the decades since, 1947 has become known as “the year Maine burned.” More than 200 fires raged across the state in the fall of that year, destroying over a thousand homes and seasonal cabins, burning a quarter of a million acres, and utterly devastating nine Maine towns. Thousands of Mainers went homeless. Sixteen people were killed. Maine’s governor, Horace Hildreth, called for a state of emergency. President Harry Truman mobilized the U.S. Army and Navy to help fight the fires and evacuate citizens.

Portents of the coming catastrophe came as early as March of that year. After a long and weary winter, the citizens of Maine were greeted by spring rains that, once they arrived, refused to let up until well into June. This was followed by one of the driest summers on record. Autumn arrived and still the rains held off. By October, all of Maine was a tinderbox just waiting for the spark.

This “cottage,” owned by James G. Blaine, was one of those located along Millionaire’s Row in Bar Harbor, and destroyed in the 1947 fires. (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Worst hit were York County and Mount Desert Island. The fires swept through Bar Harbor and obliterated the famous Millionaires’ Row, leveled half of Acadia National Park, and forced the evacuation of the island’s residents by sea.

Finally, on October 29, 1947, the rains came, and the fires across the state were at last brought under control. In the wreckage of gutted homes and flattened forests, the people of Maine began to think about how to prepare for the next fiery holocaust.

At the time of the ’47 fires, many of the smaller towns in Maine had no formally organized fire departments, and for those that did exist, there was no system in place for communication and cooperation in case of statewide fire emergencies. That all changed in 1947. Many of our local departments were established at this time, including South China and Albion, both in 1947, and two years later, Windsor, in 1949. China Village and Vassalboro boast a slightly earlier history, in 1942 and 1935 respectively.

This article about the current state of our local volunteer fire departments is based on interviews with seven area fire chiefs, from Albion, China, South China, Weeks Mills, Palermo, Vassalboro and Windsor. Research was also conducted using the internet, newspaper archives, and the exhaustively researched book by Joyce Butler, Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned, available from the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library, in China Village.

Much has changed since the ’47 fires, and our local volunteer fire departments are facing some of the biggest challenges in their 70-plus year histories. With Climate Change bringing warmer weather, drier conditions and more extreme weather events, our volunteer fire departments are more important than ever before.

Tim Theriault, China Village Fire Chief

The number one issue on the minds of local fire chiefs is volunteer recruitment and retention. “It’s a national crisis,” says China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault. “I’ve been on the fire commission for the State of Maine for five years, and this has been the number one topic. [Statewide], we had 12,000 volunteer firefighters a few years ago. We have 7,000 now. How do we fix this? There’s no silver bullet.”

The struggle to recruit and retain members of our local volunteer fire departments is part of a broader issue involving a lack of civic engagement affecting many organizations, including the Lions Club, the Masons and the American Legion. Volunteer groups like Fire and Rescue have been especially hard-hit by the drop in civic engagement, although it’s also apparent in other areas, such as the number of people running for local office.

“We had an opening [for selectman] last election, in March, and just one person ran,” Albion Fire and Rescue Chief Andy Clark says. “I think people are less likely to volunteer for their community than they used to.”

This decline in the enthusiasm of people to engage in their communities seems to be the result of a number of factors. One frequent complaint is that people are so busy today, often with both parents working just to make ends meet, and this leaves less time for involvement in community organizations.

The internet too has contributed to a drop in community engagement. People are finding their sense of community in online groups, which are usually based on common interests or ideologies, rather than common geography, and local organizations are suffering as a result.

Over the years, our communities have also shifted from rural towns, where people often worked near their homes, on farms or in local factories, to bedroom communities where people work quite a distance from their places of residence. This has had a significant impact on our volunteer fire departments’ ability to respond to daytime fires, especially during the week.

Windsor Fire Chief Arthur Strout, 79, receiving a recognition award for 60 years of service in April 2019. (photo by Eric Austin)

“Our daytime coverage isn’t getting any better,” says Albion’s chief, Andy Clark.

Windsor fire chief, Arthur Strout, relies heavily on several retired members of the department to deal with daytime fires. “There’s about four of us,” he says. “We call it the ‘senior group.’” Chief Strout, at 79, is one of them.

Training is another area that often serves as a barrier to those who might volunteer. Over the decades, training requirements have sharply increased, demanding a level of commitment that often surprises new recruits. Achieving Fireman 1 and 2 certifications can take upwards of 100 hours of classroom time, in addition to practical training involving live burns.

“The problem is,” says Vassalboro Deputy Chief Walker Thompson, “when you tell them they’ve got to go up to the fire school every other weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, [for four months], they might start it, but then they’ll drop out. They don’t realize how much bookwork is behind it.”

“The actual requirements from the Department of Labor haven’t really increased much over the last few years,” comments Albion’s Andy Clark, “but they’ve been more strict about making sure you do it.” However, he adds, “The training that you really need to obtain to do the job is increased, because there’s a lot more to it now.”

Many of our volunteer fire departments offer classroom training at the local station to make it easier for recruits to attend. “Every Monday night,” says Weeks Mills fire chief, Bill Van Wickler, who offers the training to new recruits from China and Palermo. “[We] started in October. We’ll finish sometime in June.” The study book they use is over a thousand pages and as thick as a brick. “All of what’s required is a lot of paperwork,” he says. “There’s just a lot to it to stay compliant. We all work hard at it. It’s time consuming.”

Like training, safety regulations have become more stringent over time. This can be a heavy burden for small departments staffed by volunteers, especially since state and federal agencies hold volunteer departments to the same standards as the bigger, fulltime fire departments. “That just strangles us out here,” says Palermo’s fire chief, Joshua Webb, who is also a fulltime firefighter for Gardiner.

A firefighter in full fire gear. (photo courtesy of Vassalboro Volunteer Fire Department)

As safety requirements pile on, the cost of equipment also increases. “If it says ‘rescue’ on it, you can double the price,” Webb says. To outfit a new recruit, including coat, hat, pants, gloves and boots, it can set a department back more than $6,000.

“I remember when I first joined the department, we didn’t have any coats,” says Windsor’s chief, Arthur Strout. “The only thing we had was boots. We had to buy our boots, and back then they were fifty bucks.” Today, those boots cost $400.

Air masks, commonly referred to as SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus), are another bit of equipment – and expense – that departments didn’t have to worry about 50 years ago. They sell for about $1,500 apiece. It’s another expense, requires additional training, and are mandatory for any firefighter attempting to enter a structure on fire. Further, state law insists that at least four SCBA-certified firefighters must be available before anyone can head into a burning building: two to go into the blaze, while two others stand by as backup in case something goes wrong. For a small department, like Palermo with six active members but only two SCBA-certified firefighters, that’s a high bar. Luckily, strong mutual aid agreements between communities mean these gaps are often filled by firefighters from other departments who respond to the call.

“You can depend on it more than you could back 20 years ago,” says Windsor fire chief, Arthur Strout. “Twenty years ago you were more or less on your own.”

This spirit of cooperation, first sparked in the aftermath of the ’47 fires between the affected New England states and the federal government, has blossomed on the local level in recent years as a response to staffing challenges. “These towns would be hurting if we didn’t have mutual aid,” Strout says. “Other towns depend on us like we depend on them.”

It’s these agreements that have allowed departments to maintain the same reliable coverage even as they struggle to retain volunteers and the towns they serve continue to grow in population.

Windsor firefighters testing water hoses for leaks and weak spots, as required by state regulations for safety. (photo courtesy of Windsor Volunteer Fire Department.)

Perhaps the biggest – but least obvious – danger to local departments is volunteer morale. Firefighting is a major commitment. Not only are firefighters risking life and limb to keep their communities safe, they are also sacrificing time with family and friends to spend many boring hours training in order to stay compliant with increasingly stringent state and federal regulations. It’s a lot to ask from anybody, but even more so from unpaid volunteers.

Disagreements between departments and the municipalities in which they operate can be disastrous. Earlier this year, such a disagreement in the town of Thorndike led to the resignation of 28 members of the department.

As Dick Morse, fire chief for South China, says, leading an organization of volunteers is different than being the manager of paid employees. People don’t volunteer to be firefighters for the money. They do it because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Destroy that fragile foundation, and the whole structure collapses.

“The only way you’re going to get people to continue to volunteer,” says Weeks Mills Chief Bill Van Wickler, “is if they feel good about it – if it makes them feel good – for their contribution.”

Fortunately, in most cases, fire departments enjoy warm support from their municipal governments, although that relationship is unique for each town. While Albion and Palermo maintain a separate firemen’s association, they think of themselves as essentially a part of their municipalities. Other departments, however, remain fiercely independent.

In recent years, to encourage participation and attract new recruits, most departments have instituted a policy of paying volunteers stipends. Palermo is the lone exception to this, although Chief Webb says a stipend policy has been approved by the town select board and will be implemented soon.

Stipends tend to run in the range of $10-$15 per call for rank and file volunteers, with some departments paying a per hour amount specifically for structure fires. “You’re [basically] paying for gas,” says Dennis Strout, a member of the Windsor fire department.

Officers and chiefs receive more, on account of the administrative overhead they have to deal with, but that hardly covers the amount of work the job requires. Bill Van Wickler, in his second year as chief for the Weeks Mills fire department, admits, “There’s an awful lot more to this than I realized when I thought it would be a good thing to do. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done it; I’m just saying it was an eye-opener. I had no idea how much work being the chief would be.”

The challenge to find new recruits for local volunteer fire departments is also being addressed on the state level. A measure, the Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP), which would set up a pension fund for Maine’s volunteer firefighters, was passed by the Maine legislature and signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage several years ago, but has since failed to be appropriated any funding. A new bill to fund the program, called “An Act to Attract and Retain Firefighters,” co-sponsored by State Representative and China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault, was recently passed unanimously out of committee. Although it was set to be voted on by the full legislature during budget negotiations in June, it has now been delayed until next year. Despite these setbacks, Theriault remains optimistic the measure will be funded in the next legislative session.

The fires firefighters are fighting have changed as well, becoming more dangerous to the men and women on the frontlines. Fifty years ago, homes were made primarily of natural materials: wood, steel, and organic products like horse hair for stuffing and insulation. Today, those materials have been replaced with vinyl siding, petroleum-based foam or plastic, and fiberglass. “They burn faster and give off more toxic fumes,” says Vassalboro Fire Chief Eric Rowe. Ironically, the fire retardant used on many products produces deadly smoke when it does burn, making air masks a necessity for anyone venturing into a burning building. “You get it on your coat and your gear,” Rowe says. “That’s how firefighters get cancer.”

“Building construction is a lot more dangerous today,” confirms Albion fire chief, Andy Clark. “You have hazardous materials, you know, and meth labs. There’s just a lot more [to worry about] than there ever was when I started [in 1993].”

Members of Albion Volunteer Fire & Rescue. (photo courtesy of Albion Fire & Rescue)

Further, the toxic, dangerous nature of today’s house fires requires departments to maintain two sets of gear for each firefighter. One set needs to be ready to go while the other is being cleaned of poisonous chemicals. This requirement doubles the cost of outfitting new recruits, and because most of this gear needs to be custom-fitted for each volunteer, if a recruit quits, there’s no guarantee the gear you just purchased will fit the next one.

Yet, despite all these challenges facing our volunteer fire departments, the news is not all bad. This past year, China, Windsor, and Albion departments have all seen the highest number of new recruits in years, and Palermo is rebuilding its department after half a decade of decline. Fundraising efforts are up for almost everyone, and inter-town departmental ties are stronger than at any time in the past.

But what’s most important to local volunteer fire departments is having the support of the communities they protect, and recognition for the vital role they serve.

“On the worst day of the year, [when] there’s a storm, and everybody’s hunkered down in their homes, and a house catches on fire, or the wires go down, trees go down across the roads – they call me. They call my guys,” says China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault. “If it’s ten below zero, we’re gonna be there, fighting that fire.”

Eric W. Austin writes about technology and community issues. He can be reached by email at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

Vassalboro board puzzles over lunch program finances

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members puzzled over lunch program finances at their June 18 meeting, after Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer recommended they reallocate $30,000 to start covering the program’s debt even though it doesn’t owe any money to anybody.

Pfeiffer explained that the “debt,” about $130,000, is on the books because the program spends more than the state reimbursement. Having red ink on the books displeases the auditor, and the board should deal with it.

However, in the real world the school department pays what it owes from other accounts and grants.

The main reason for the debt, Curriculum Coordinator Mary Boyle said, is that students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals do not apply to use the program. Therefore the state does not reimburse the school department.

Re-elected Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur said less than $2,000 of the debt is due to families who owe lunch money to the school – “a drop in the bucket.” He said 53 percent of Vassalboro Community School (VCS) students don’t eat school meals, bringing their own.

Board members talked about making the meal program more inviting and about the need for more information about the free and reduced-price program. Pfeiffer said parents can apply at any time, not just when the application form comes home as school opens in the fall. Board member Jessica Clark suggested putting the application form on the website.

No decisions were made; the meal program will be on a future agenda.

The decision that was made, after continued discussion from the May meeting (see The Town Line, May 30), was to expand the VCS Title I program from a small group of students identified as falling behind academically to the entire school.

Boyle said the current program, staffed by three educational technicians and a literacy specialist, targets students with difficulty in English. A school-wide program would continue to assist these students; add students on the borderline of falling behind the rest of their class, who get no service under the targeted Title I; let Title I staff work in the regular classrooms; and perhaps allow adding help in math.

Board members unanimously approved the change. Levasseur commented that he expects it will “benefit more kids and not have to jump through so many [bureaucratic] hoops.”

Pfeiffer and Levasseur expect two new buses to arrive later in the year. Transportation coordinator Lisa Gadway explained that she will analyze needs, talk with drivers about their preferences, consider quality and longevity and seek price quotes before ordering buses tailored for Vassalboro.

“It’s not just, ‘Hey, send me a bus.’” You have to know what you want,” she said. Boyle and Gadway work out of the former office of AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92 in Waterville, serving one or more of the three ex-AOS member towns (Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow) under contract.

In other business June 18, board members unanimously hired Tabitha Sagner as full-time social worker at VCS. She previously was a half-time contract worker at the school; Pfeiffer said she had a good record and both she and personnel with whom she has worked are pleased to have her as a full-time staff member.

Board members accepted the resignations of special education teacher Deborah Spiller and third-grade teacher Lynn Wells, both of whom have moved to other jobs, Pfeiffer said. The positions are being advertised.

Board members gave preliminary approval to a minor change in the 2019-2020 school calendar: changing the name of the October 14 holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, following new state legislation.

They discussed scheduling a strategic planning workshop, probably in August, to look ahead for the next five years. Continuing their policy of taking a July break, they scheduled the next regular board meeting for Tuesday evening, Aug. 20.

CHINA: Decisions on new excavator, Saturday hours postponed

by Mary Grow

China selectmen made several decisions at their June 24 meeting, the last in the current fiscal year, but postponed action on the two longest-discussed questions, whether to buy an excavator and whether to eliminate Saturday town office hours.

At their June 10 meeting, Board members re-reviewed bids for equipment for summer road work and voted to rent an excavator, as needed, from local contractor Wayne Chadwick. Public Works Manager Shawn Reed encouraged them to consider buying an excavator instead, saying it would save money and make scheduling jobs easier. (See The Town Line, June 6 and June 13.)

Reed and Board members discussed the topic again June 24. Reed said he had done “a ton of negotiating” with seven dealers and recommended a 119-horsepower Volvo from Chadwick-BaRoss, a dealer with offices in Westbrook, Bangor and Caribou.

Town Manager Dennis Heath calculated savings at $85,000, counting paying for the machine, over 10 years and more than $300,000 over 20 years. Reed said several of the town crew are qualified to run an excavator, though probably not as skillfully as Chadwick or Robin Tobey, another local contractor.

Selectmen again postponed action.

They also postponed a decision on whether and if so how to change town office hours, specifically by eliminating the three hours on Saturday and extending hours one or more other days.

Heath shared results of the survey run from May 31 through June 21 asking people questions like whether they used the town office on Saturday and if so, why; and if office hours were to be extended to 6 p.m. at least one day a week, which day would be most convenient.

The manager said as far as he knows, China’s 45.5 hours a week are the longest in the area, and no other nearby office is open Saturdays.

Staff member Kelly Grotton said she and three of her four colleagues take turns working Saturday mornings; Town Clerk Becky Hapgood is not included in the rotation. No one minds swapping a week-day for a Saturday, she said, but there are two disadvantages. When someone is off on a week-day, the office may be short-staffed, so that everyone is at the counter or on the telephone and putting off other work, like Grotton’s assessing assignments; and on Saturdays state offices, necessary for many tasks from motor vehicle registrations to various license renewals, are closed.

Reed said if a town office staff member is working with him on an ongoing issue, he has to remember which day she’ll not be available.

Almost everything except registering a new vehicle can be done on line, Grotton said. Survey results showed about 30 percent of respondents were not aware of that option.

Chadwick, arguing from the audience for keeping Saturday hours, said some older residents neither used a computer nor drove a car, perhaps leaving Saturday morning when someone was free to offer a ride as their only chance to do town office business.

Decisions selectmen did make included:

  • Authorizing Heath to spend $2,950 to buy and install the previously-approved generator at the transfer station, including a propane tank, necessary piping and other auxiliary items.
  • Voting to give money for safety vests to the Roadside Team, the group originally started by Richard Dillenbeck to pick up roadside litter. Funds will come from returnable bottles donated to the transfer station. Selectmen were also willing to let the transfer station crew pick up bags of collected litter if necessary; Board member Irene Belanger said the team has nine volunteers and she has offered the use of her truck, so maybe they can do the pick-up themselves.
  • Approving Chadwick’s $24,300 bid for about half a mile of trail work for the China Four Seasons Club. Heath said Chadwick was the only bidder. Bids for work on another trail section are due July 8, he said. In other business, Transfer Station Manager Tim Grotton said the town received a $10,500 state grant for an electronic pass system (called RFID, radio-frequency identification). Grotton said China did not receive a larger grant to locate four recycling trailers around town (see The Town Line, April 25).

Later in the meeting, Selectman Ronald Breton said “the public generally” does not like having the transfer station close at 3 p.m. four of the five days it’s open and does not care that it opens at 7 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and 6:30 a.m. Saturdays. He proposed returning to the 5 p.m. closing.

Tim Grotton said he has a lot of business early in the morning, including people waiting at 6 a.m. on Saturdays and people in their office clothes dropping off trash weekdays. Comparatively few people come in between 3 and 5 p.m. Thursdays. He expects the RFID system will provide useful information for the selectmen and the Transfer Station Committee.

Reed reported the newly-hired public works driver/mechanic won’t start until July 1, but has already looked over the garage and equipment and suggested things he can do.

Belanger said volunteers are needed for the Aug. 2-4 China Community Days celebration; those interested should call Kelly Grotton at the town office.

Heath added that the China Village volunteer fire department holds its annual chicken barbecue Saturday, July 6, starting at 11:30 a.m. at the fire station.

The next regular selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for Monday evening, July 8.

China receives DEP second round of grants for recycling and organics management initiatives

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection recently announced the second round of grant award recipients for recycling and organics management projects. These projects are targeted to divert waste from disposal by expanding composting and recycling opportunities across Maine. DEP received 14 proposals requesting $347,486 and will award $212,790 to fund 13 of these projects. Maine DEP is providing these grants to help businesses, institutions and municipalities address solid waste management challenges.

Reducing the amount of materials consumers buy and use, reusing items, and recycling products and packaging are all actions that significantly reduce our environmental impacts and help to enhance sustainability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut costs.

Among other communities, China was awarded $10,500 for recycling and composting. China proposes to establish a radio frequency identification (RFID) system to gather data on the use of the various components of waste management services (swap shop, recycling stations, disposal) by town of origin. This data will be used to assess expansion of recycling operations to serve residents of neighboring towns, to design operational efficiencies, and to improve education and outreach on recycling.