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,, 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.

Question on Bailey property purchase put to rest

by Mary Grow

At their Oct. 22 meeting, China Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Committee members finally put to rest the question of whether to recommend that voters buy Susan Bailey’s property near the head of China Lake’s east basin. Their decision: no.

The property consists of a small parcel across Causeway Street from the boat landing, where landing users habitually park, and a larger piece across Routes 202 and 9. In November 2016 China voters appropriated up to $10,000 to buy the smaller piece to provide additional town-owned parking close to the boat launch.

Since then, TIF Committee members have learned that the two parcels are indivisible, and that the state would not approve using any part of the larger one for boat launch parking because users would have to cross the busy highway. Left with the alternatives of no purchase or asking voters to spend $120,000 for the entire property, committee members voted 7-2 to advise selectmen to abandon the idea (Tom Michaud and Jim Wilkens were opposed).

Wilkens said if Bailey were to sell the whole property to someone else and the new owner wanted to reopen negotiations with the town over the smaller piece, the question could be revived.

The unused $10,000 will go into China’s undesignated fund balance (also known as the general fund or surplus).

In other business Oct. 22, Michaud and Town Manager Dennis Heath updated the rest of the committee on replacement of the old causeway bridge just west of the boat landing. Arrival of the concrete culvert has been delayed to Oct. 26, Heath said, with installation now scheduled for Oct. 29.

The timber mat at the bottom of the old structure was in good shape, he said. Rocks were added to extend and slightly raise the base for the new culvert.

“All in all it looks like things are going pretty well,” he summarized.

Michaud said the second phase of the causeway project will consist of a walkway along the head of the lake. For the present, he recommended against the proposed floating “fishing bridge,” saying it would be one more thing to maintain; boaters and swimmers would be tempted to use it; and the walkway will offer ample room for fishermen.

Committee members heard two requests for TIF funds. They agreed to recommend that selectmen put a request for $52,000 for continued work in Thurston Park on the March 2019 town business meeting warrant. Thurston Park Committee Chairman Jeannette Smith said if voters approve, the money would be used to continue improving what is now Trail One and work on Trail Two, the former roads looping off the main road that runs north-south through the park. Smith said Aislinn Sarnacki intends to include Thurston Park in her new guide to dog-friendly hikes, scheduled to be published next spring. Already, Smith and TIF Committee members said, out-of-towners are using – and praising – the park.

The second request was from Landis Hudson of Maine Rivers, seeking funding for the Alewife Restoration Project (ARI) that is intended to let alewives swim from the Atlantic Ocean into China Lake. The money would be combined with other funding sources to install fishways at three dams on Outlet Stream in Vassalboro.

Committee members agreed that China’s TIF program and state law limit TIF expenditures to within town boundaries. They therefore rejected Hudson’s request and encouraged her to ask selectmen to ask voters in March 2019 for non-TIF town funds. By consensus, committee members accepted H. David Cotta’s suggestion that they send selectmen a letter of support for ARI funding. Chairman Frank Soares volunteered to write the letter.

They also agreed that the subcommittee overseeing the causeway project should have the additional responsibility of reviewing TIF-funded projects, like Thurston Park, during and after the work. Soares suggested a 30-day notice before a funding application is submitted would be useful, to give time for a pre-inspection if desired.

Heath gave committee members a financial update, showing a balance of more than $626,000 as of June 30, 2018. He estimated that incoming revenue of almost $348,000, less obligations during the 2018-19 fiscal year, would leave a little more than $311,000 in the TIF account as of June 30, 2019.

The next TIF Committee meeting is currently scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15.

Law enforcement tops selectmen’s agenda

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen continued discussion of local law enforcement at their Oct. 18 meeting.

The topic was first raised several meetings earlier by board member John Melrose. Melrose thinks calling the town’s policeman, currently Mark Brown, the police chief is misleading, because he is in charge of no other officers and works part-time, in Brown’s case 15 hours a week.

“Police chief” is the title selectmen have used for Brown and at least one of his predecessors, Richard Phippen. The job description, last revised in 2016, is titled “Police Officer Job Description.”

Town Manager Mary Sabins and Melrose collaborated on a re-revised draft discussed Oct. 18 but not approved. Language has been amended to make it clear that the local policeman is not always on duty. Selectmen considered additional changes, with suggestions from Brown, firefighter and former Town Manager Michael Vashon and other audience members.

Melrose suggested the local police officer needs neither a police vehicle nor a weapon. His ideas were not supported.

There was consensus that Brown should be primarily what people called a community policeman or a resource officer, making himself visible at public events, Vassalboro Community School and elsewhere in town. More serious and/or time-consuming problems should be left or transferred to the state police or the Kennebec County sheriff’s office, whichever is covering Vassalboro that week.

State and county officers take two-week turns covering municipalities, Brown said. Melrose commented that communication among state, county and local officers sometimes seems inadequate.

The discussion touched briefly on the proposed reorganization of Augusta-based regional dispatching services, due to be completed in the summer of 2019, with so-far-unknown effects on local emergency services.

In other business at the lengthy Oct. 18 meeting:

  • After a very short public hearing that brought no comments, selectmen approved annual renewal permits for five automobile graveyards and three auto hobbyists.
  • Vashon, speaking for the volunteer fire department, got approval to use $25,000 from surplus to help reduce the price of a new fire truck, if the department gets a grant for most of the cost. Vashon said the department is looking at a $350,000 truck, hopes for gifts to help reduce the price and expects to hear next spring whether the grant application is approved.
  • Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus reported on a meeting he attended with representatives of other Central Maine towns to get updated information on energy-efficient street lights. “I left very encouraged,” he said, but he is not ready to recommend a commitment without still more information.
  • Selectmen approved revised rules for Vassalboro cemeteries, pending one clarification that Cemetery Committee Chairman Jane Aiudi thought would not be a problem. The next Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for Thursday evening, Nov. 1.

School board members continue information sharing

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members continued information-sharing between town and school officials at their Oct. 16 meeting, inviting the board of selectmen – represented by John Melrose – to talk about mutually relevant issues.

Now that the school is part of the town instead of in a regional school unit, selectmen think more sharing of information, plans and resources will be useful. Melrose’s suggestions included:

  • Negotiating with Erskine Academy, the South China private high school attended by the majority of Vassalboro students, about ways to reduce town costs for tuition or transportation or both;
  • Cooperating on energy upgrades to save money;
  • Continuing efforts to have Vassalboro Community School (VCS) designated as an emergency shelter;
  • Reviewing services currently contracted with the former AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) 92 to consider what could be brought in-house when the three-year contract with the former AOS ends; and
  • Involving students and school personnel in the 250th anniversary of Vassalboro’s incorporation, which will be in 2021.

Another major discussion item was school board member Jolene Clark Gamage’s report on babies born addicted to drugs. The gist of her message was that resulting developmental delays or behavioral problems, or both, follow the child into school, creating an increasing need for special education services.

In 2016, the last year for which Gamage had what she thought were complete figures, Kennebec County reported 109 drug-affected babies. The figure was the third highest for Maine’s 16 counties (plus a very small number of non-resident babies), topped only by Penobscot and Androscoggin counties.

In the country, Gamage said, the most recent statistics show Maine has the fourth highest number of babies born addicted. In 2016 the state was in second place, according to materials she shared with other board members.

The cost of special education services varies with the severity of the student’s need.

Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur warned of another potential budget increase: special state funding for the pre-kindergarten program ends this year. If the program is to continue, the school will pick up the cost, with a major impact on the 2018-19 budget. In future years, the state will reimburse the town for pre-kindergarten students on the same per-pupil basis as for older VCS students.

Levasseur said Eric Haley, former AOS superintendent, has ideas for alternative funding that he plans to discuss with Vassalboro Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer and VCS Principal Megan Allen.

The next Vassalboro School Board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening, Nov. 20.

Update on China Causeway project

Construction proceeds on the China Causeway construction project. (Photo courtesy of the China Lake Association)

Comprehensive Land Techno­logies (CLT) continues its work on the bridge replacement on the Causeway at the Head of the Lake.

In its weekly report to China Town Manager Dennis Heath, they reported they have completely exposed the timber mat and have begun installation of the stone mat. Because of overnight rain, the water level upstream had risen and the area needed to be pumped down.

The stone mat was observed and appeared that things were being constructed in accordance with the design drawings.

The limits of the timber mat were discovered, and it was only found within the footprint of the old bridge. It was decided the stone mat needed to be two feet thick in all areas outside the timber mat. A surveyor was brought in to verify elevations and layout limits of the excavation.

According to CLT Superintendent Brooks Dow, erosion and sedimentation controls continued to function in the same manner as before. CLT was pumping water from the excavation into the sediment basin and filtered water was sheeting back into the pond on the upstream side of the bridge.

Excavation work continued on the Causeway at the Head of China Lake to prepare the subgrade to continue the build out of the stone mat. (Contributed photo)

Planners act on questions postponed from last meeting

by Mary Grow

Although only four of the six China Planning Board members were present at the Oct. 9 board meeting, they tackled multiple questions left undecided at their previous meeting because only three members were able to attend.

The longest discussion was over an essentially procedural issue: after the board reviews an application for a conditional use permit for a new business and votes that it meets all 15 criteria in China’s Land Use Ordinance, does the written document setting forth the reasons for the decision, known as findings of fact, need a second vote?

In April, according to board minutes Chairman Tom Miragliuolo cited, board members decided no second vote was needed. The codes officer would draft the document for the chairman’s review and signature.

In August, board member Ronald Breton, who had seconded the April motion not to require a second vote, moved a vote on a findings of fact document approving an application submitted at the previous meeting, reopening debate about whether two votes are needed.

The conclusion on Oct. 9 was that a second vote is not needed, because the written findings ought to accurately reproduce decisions already voted at the meeting, without change.

When there is no hurry about issuing the permit, the codes officer and chairman may share the written findings of fact with the rest of the board. If work is to start promptly, as with the causeway project at the head of China Lake approved in August, the findings of fact should be prepared and signed and circulated afterward for board members’ information.

In a related matter, board members unanimously settled another question: the 30-day period to appeal a conditional use permit begins when the project is approved as meeting ordinance requirements, not after the written supporting document is signed.

The third issue that has been pending since spring and on which some progress was made Oct. 9 is Codes Officer Paul Mitnik’s proposals for ordinance amendments. He divided them into two categories, fairly simple ones that should be presented to voters soon – for example, elimination of contradictions in the Land Use Ordinance – and more complex ones.

Board members approved all but one of the suggested simpler changes and asked Mitnik to draft proposed revisions.

The next China Planning Board meeting is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday evening, Oct. 23, if there is an application needing action or if Mitnik has had time to draft ordinance changes for review.

Public hearing on local ballot question planned

by Mary Grow

China selectmen have scheduled a public hearing on six Nov. 6 local ballot questions for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, in the town office meeting room.

The questions ask if China voters want to:

  • Repeal the Quorum Ordinance;
  • Ask the Maine legislature for an exemption from the requirement that all municipalities collect personal property taxes on business equipment;
  • Appropriate up to $5,000 from Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funds to explore building an emergency services building and perhaps a community center on the former Candlewood subdivision off the north end of Lakeview Drive;
  • Appropriate up to $26,000 from current-year sale of tax-acquired properties for additional salaries and benefits for transfer station staff; and
  • Authorize selectmen, on the recommendation of the TIF Committee, to spend up to $100,000 in TIF funds on projects not presented to voters at the annual town business meeting.

On Sunday, Oct. 28, the four candidates for three seats on the Board of Selectmen, incumbents Jeffrey LaVerdiere and Donna Mills-Stevens and challengers Ronald Breton and Wayne Chadwick, plus retiring Selectman Neil Farrington, will participate in a candidates’ forum beginning at 2 p.m. at the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library on Main Street in China Village.

The next regular selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for Monday evening, Oct. 29.

On Nov. 6, China polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the former portable classroom behind the town office on Lakeview Drive.

Selectmen choose to spend more than voters approved

by Mary Grow

At their Oct. 15 meeting, China selectmen approved spending more than voters authorized for two different town problems. They took the major over-expenditure, in the legal account, from the legal reserve fund set up for such situations, and the minor one from the $55,000 contingency fund voters gave them at the March town business meeting. Town Manager Dennis Heath explained that the town is involved in a lawsuit over disposition of foreclosed property. So far, he said, mainly because of the one case, legal expenses have exceeded $19,000, compared to the $10,000 voters approved in March for the fiscal year.

The case could be precedent-setting for every municipality in the state, he said, so he plans to pursue it to the Law Court if necessary. He recommended, and selectmen approved, using $9,000 from the $36,000 legal reserve fund for expenses to date.

Board member Jeffrey LaVerdiere suggested if the case could affect every Maine municipality, there should be a way to get others to help with costs. He also recommended advance discussion with the board before going so far over budget.

The second issue is replacing the roof on the red barn south of the town office, which board members said has three layers of old shingles on it. They sought bids for removing the old shingles, doing any necessary repairs and re-shingling, and got three, all over $9,400. In March, voters appropriated $8,000 for the work.

Deciding the job was too important to postpone, selectmen accepted a bid of $9,600 from P and P Roofing, in Gardiner, planning to take $1,600 from their contingency fund to cover the full cost.

Board members heard another request for a purchase, but postponed action to their Oct. 29 meeting. Public Works Foreman Gary Cummings wants a $49,223 highly versatile Ventrac tractor to plow South China’s sidewalks, sweep the transfer station grounds and road shoulders and mow difficult-to-access roadside areas, among other tasks.

Cummings said the John Deere currently used as a sidewalk plow is a residential machine, not commercial, and has had frequent problems. The Ventrac would save part of its purchase price by eliminating leasing some equipment, like a shoulder broom, every year.

Other town department representatives’ reports included:

  • From policeman Tracey Frost, a comment that September was a very busy month, with traffic complaints predominating, and October had not slowed down.
  • From David Herard of China Rescue, another request for more volunteers to join the rescue unit, especially younger people who are settled in China.
  • From the public works crew, an update on progress on rebuilding the fire pond on Neck Road, a report that the docks at the boat landing at the head of the lake have been removed for the winter and the good news that the rearranged town office water supply has provided drinkable water. Groundwater contamination from an old salt pile has been a problem in the past.
  • From Transfer Station Manager Tim Grotton, a reminder of the Oct. 20 household hazardous waste collection in Winslow, for which pre-registration at the China transfer station is required, and the Oct. 27 shredding-on-site at the China town garage next door to the transfer station.

Contrary to the implication of an Oct. 12 notice in the Central Maine newspapers, free shredding of outdated private documents is available only to residents of China and nearby towns that have contributed to the cost of the program. As of Oct. 15, those towns were Liberty, Palermo and Vassalboro.

Heath had planned to film the Oct. 15 meeting and post it on the China website, but the camera apparently did not function. Once it is adjusted, future meetings will be available for public viewing.