Board denies reduced valuation to ReVision Energy

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

by Mary Grow

On a 2-1 vote, the China Board of Assessment Review denied a request to reduce the valuation on ReVision Energy’s community solar farm at Three Level Farm on Route 32 North.

Four board members heard three hours of argument on the subject at a Dec. 18 meeting (see this article from Jan. 3). Three met again Jan. 10 to make a decision (the fourth person was out of state).

Chairman Dale Peabody began by establishing that no board member had a conflict of interest in acting on the project. He then reviewed the criteria for a successful appeal: the burden of proof is on the appellant (ReVision Energy in this case), who must prove the assessment was “manifestly wrong” in that it was either completely unreasonable or fraudulent, dishonest or illegal.

In addition, Peabody said, the appellant is required to provide an alternative valuation supported by credible evidence.

Peabody and fellow board member Harold Charles did not believe ReVision Energy met either requirement. They questioned the company’s figures on depreciation and on the end-date for the project and its final value; and they found the company’s belief that taxes should equal to no more than five percent of income unsupported.

Peabody added that the local board’s task was difficult, because there are not yet established criteria for making decisions about the value of community solar farms. He recommended companies and assessors get together and try to agree on some basic elements.

Meanwhile, he said, he found no evidence in ReVision’s presentation that assessor William Van Tuinen’s valuation was manifestly wrong.

Board member Sheri Wilkens voted against rejecting the appeal. She agreed that ReVision’s proposed cap on taxes was not adequately supported, but wanted a scientific basis for the varying figures presented on depreciation and final value.

Van Tuinen had never before valued a community solar farm, she pointed out, while ReVision brought an expert to the December meeting to defend its figures, Chief Counsel and Director of Development Steve Hinchman.

Expert, Charles agreed, but also “the guy who’s selling the thing.”

The difference in valuation is significant: Van Tuinen valued the community solar farm at about $275,000, while working backwards from ReVision’s five percent tax rate gives a valuation of less than $91,000.

Kristin Collins, ReVision’s attorney, said at the end of the Jan. 10 meeting that her client would wait to see the written document denying the appeal, with its statement of facts, before deciding whether to continue to court.

Manager presents proposed 2019 budget at meeting

by Mary Grow

At a Jan. 11 meeting, China Town Manager Dennis Heath presented selectmen and budget committee members with proposed municipal budget articles for the April 6 town business meeting.

The manager’s draft rearranges expenditure requests into what he sees as logical categories. One result is fewer articles.

For example, instead of a warrant article asking voters to appropriate funds for insurance (Art. 15 in the 2018 warrant), insurance costs are listed as part of each department’s expenses, as a line item in requests for the police department, public works, fire and rescue services and transfer station.

Town boards and committees are together in one proposed article. It includes a new parks committee, based on Heath’s recommendation to rename the Thurston Park II Committee and give it jurisdiction over both Thurston Park and the school forest behind China Primary School.

Out-of-town social services are combined in one article, in-town “Community support organizations” in another.

Street signs and street lights, which had a separate article in past years (Art. 20 in 2018), are listed under public works. Heath said a proposed increase in street light expenses from $7,200 to $10,000 is in anticipation of additional lights on the causeway at the head of China Lake’s east basin and in “other parts of town where appropriate.” Heath also advises changes in both the use of TIF (Tax Increment Finance) money and the presentation of TIF warrant articles. One article deleted after many years is the request to give part of the snowmobile registration tax refund from the state to the China Four Seasons Club (Art. 21 in 2018). Heath said since town money is not being appropriated, he thinks the article is unnecessary.

In an introduction to the budget document, Heath explained that he asked heads of town departments to help develop it.

He predicted the effect of the proposed municipal budget on the tax rate will be a small increase, about 35 cents for each $1,000 of valuation, but quickly added that until the school and county requests are known, no accurate prediction is possible. The town meeting warrant is also likely to include proposed ordinance amendments presented by the planning board. A public hearing on the changes is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29.

Future budget discussions include a selectmen’s workshop at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, and a budget committee meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23. The next regular selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22.

Selectmen and budget committee members discussed two other changes in the town meeting warrant.

They agreed the selectmen’s and budget committee recommendations that follow articles will give the number of votes in each group – instead of saying simply “Select Board recommends yes,” the line will add the number of board members voting yes and no.

They are considering eliminating or moving to the end of the warrant the speeches and presentations that delay the start of voting and often duplicate information in the annual town report.

Selectmen discuss public works, transfer station at length

by Mary Grow

Much of the China selectmen’s Jan. 7 meeting was devoted to discussion of public works and the transfer station.

Town Manager Dennis Heath and public works employee Shawn Reed announced that Gary Cummings is leaving this week after 18 years of service to the town. Heath showed selectmen the certificate of appreciation to be presented to Cummings.

Board members unanimously authorized purchase of a new roll-up door for the lower level of the transfer station hopper building, replacing a 25-year-old door Reed said is beyond further repair. The cost is just under $7,000.

They authorized Heath to get a second price quote on a new generator for the town garage on Alder Park Road to power the diesel pump, lights and doors during power outages, and to buy the lower-priced.

Reed asked for a plug in the sand shed so the town’s portable generator could be used to power that door when needed.

He told selectmen the new Ventrax tractor is here and “looks good.”

Board members and Reed held a lively discussion of the relative merits of salt and sand for winter road maintenance. Reed said the town crew uses salt; the contractor responsible for one route uses sand, because his trucks are not calibrated to measure salt distribution.

Salt is expensive to buy, hard on vehicles and potentially damaging to China Lake, selectmen said. But, Reed said, money is saved in the spring when sand doesn’t have to be swept off roads and dug out of ditches. He believes salt makes safer roads, too, except when the temperature is too low for it to take effect.

In other business, selectmen postponed action on Heath’s proposal to change the Thurston Park II Committee to the Parks Committee and give it jurisdiction over the town forest behind China Primary School, as well as over Thurston Park. Selectman Irene Belanger wanted the current committee to consider the change.

Heath said China’s 2019 town business meeting is scheduled for Saturday, April 6. Voters will be asked to approve the municipal budget for 2019-2020.

The manager was dismayed to learn from RSU (Regional School Unit) #18 Superintendent (and China resident) Carl Gartley that school officials cannot begin budget work until the state legislature sets state funding in April or perhaps later. The manager suggested selectmen ask China voters to move post-2019 town business meetings to June.

According to the China website, the next selectmen’s meeting is Monday evening, Jan. 21. The town office will be closed that day for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Erskine tops school spirit challenge, again

Erskine Academy students celebrate by showing off their trophy for winning the School Spirit Challenge Tournament of Champions by raising a record-breaking 196,969 pounds of food. (Contributed photo)

Beginning in September, Erskine Academy, in South China, committed to a challenging mission to once again to collect food and funds to support the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine (GSFB) by participating in WGME13/Fox23’s School Spirit Challenge Tournament of Champions. The School Spirit Challenge (SSC) is a friendly competition between schools to show school pride and spirit, all while helping the community, according to a news release from Erskine Academy Headmaster Michael McQuarrie.

The program is designed to promote the school community and good stewardship with students of high schools in central and southern Maine through an eight-week food drive to benefit the Good Shepherd Food Bank and local food pantries.

This was the second time Erskine participated in the School Spirit Challenge, the first being two years ago, an event which they won handily over the other participating schools thanks to the efforts of many students, parents, alumni, businesses, and friends.

In 2016, Erskine was the School Spirit Champion for having raised nearly 85,000 pounds of food, an amount exceeding the total raised by the second and third finishers combined. Given this accomplishment, the school entered this tournament of champions with confidence. However, since the other competing high schools, also past champions, were all south of Erskine and have larger school enrollments, the collection goal was set at an ambitious 100,000 pounds of food.

Always up for a challenge and a worthy cause, the campaign was kicked off during the school’s homecoming in September. In attendance were WGME 13 anchor Jeff Peterson and representatives from the GSFB and the sponsors of this year’s SSC. The morning kicked off with students arriving at 5:30 a.m. for a tailgate breakfast served in exchange for their food donations.

The campaign continued until November 2 and was a bigger success than the academy ever imagined. The Erskine community pulled together collecting food and monetary donations and supporting the many activities to support the Challenge. Events included “Fill the Bus” with returnable containers, the Fly Like an Eagle 5K Run/Walk, Trivia Night, Trunk or Treat, Open Mic Night, and a dodgeball tournament. Off-campus activities included an EA Parents Food Drive Challenge. An online appeal went out on social media, and many generous donors gave through the Good Shepherd Food Bank’s virtual food drive.

Though initiated by Erskine’s students and faculty, they led what was a broader community campaign, supported substantially by many area businesses and organizations. The academy is grateful to its partners including Albison’s Printing, Augusta Emblem Club #233, B & B Septic Service, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, Borislow Insurance, Brian Reay Plumbing & Heating, Central Maine Pyrotechnics, Darling’s Ice Cream For A Cause, Dutil Enterprises, Fieldstone Quickstop, G & E Roofing, Glidden Construction & Foundations, Harvest Time Natural Foods, Hussey’s General Store, Jackson’s Lawn Service, Kempton Tobey & Son, Kennebec Savings Bank, Knowles Mechanical, Legacy Home Improvements, M.A. Haskell Fuel, MC Disposal, Mid-State Machine Products, Natanis Golf Course, O’Connor GMC-Buick-Chevrolet-Cadillac, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Tobey’s Grocery Store, TRICORP Federal Credit Union, William H. Brewer & Co., and United Insurance Agency. Erskine’s Student Council representatives will soon visit key contributors as part of their “Gratitude Tour.”

Erskine Academy won the competition handily by far exceeding its goal. Erskine raised a record-breaking 196,969.25 pounds of food for The Good Shepherd Food Bank, which is over twice the amount that any of the 60-plus competing schools has raised in the five years and ten seasons of this competition.

About this accomplishment, Headmaster McQuarrie says, “The School Spirit Challenge was for a great cause, and through it, our community engaged in collective problem-solving and activism as we made a significant difference, at least for a time, in the fight against hunger in Maine. We demonstrated, and others witnessed, the dynamism of EA’s values—stewardship, leadership, and relationships—at work. The work ethic, inspiration, and idealism of our young people, in particular, are humbling and heartening.”

In the coming weeks, the school will continue to recognize and thank the many individuals, including alumni from across the country, businesses, and organizations for their generosity and goodwill that aided the effort, strengthened the school community, and fed many hungry people in Maine.

Area residents graduate from UNH

The University of Hampshire, in Durham, New Hampshire, has announced the following area students who graduated in May 2018.

Rebecca Grenier, of South China, BS in BiomedSci:Med & VetSci, Cum Laude, and Bayleigh Logan, of Windsor, BS in Health Management & Policy.

China planning board reschedules meeting

by Mary Grow

The China Planning Board’s Jan. 8 meeting was canceled due to weather conditions.

The board is scheduled to meet Tuesday evening, Jan. 15, to finish proposed ordinance amendments to be submitted to voters at the April 6 town business meeting. A public hearing on the proposed changes is scheduled for Tuesday evening, Jan. 29.

The board normally begins meetings at 6:30 p.m.

Manager meets with four committee chairmen

None see expenses increase over next year

by Mary Grow

As part of the planning process for China’s 2019-2020 budget, Town Manager Dennis Heath met briefly the evening of Jan. 2 with four of 17 committee chairs.

Heads of the planning board, cemetery committee, China for a Lifetime committee and Emergency Preparedness committee were present. Heath said three others sent regrets.

His goal was to find out whether any committee chairman anticipated unusual or special expenditures during the next fiscal year. None did.

Heath suggested, for example, that the Cemetery Committee might want to acquire software to computerize cemetery records. They are currently only in paper form, he said.

He said the proposed administration budget includes $4,000 for a new system to notify interested parties of pending events. The Emergency Preparedness Committee might find the system useful, he suggested, but since it is multi-purpose it will not be part of the committee’s budget.

Heath recommends changing the Thurston Park Committee to the Parks Committee and extending its jurisdiction to include the town forest behind China Primary School.

The manager plans to convene a joint meeting of the board of selectmen and the budget committee to begin review of the draft budget by mid-January. He expressed the hope that committee heads would attend.

China voters will make final decisions on 2019-2020 expenditures at the annual town business meeting, likely to be held late in March.

Attendance matters at China Middle School

by Mandi Favreau

Building positive relationships is a key component of the district-wide attempt to improve attendance and address chronic absenteeism. At China Middle School, fostering stronger connections with students and families has been the core component of their strategy.

For obstacles such as illness and injuries, the school nurse contacts families with the goal of keeping communication open and getting students back to school as soon as appropriate. Other attendance obstacles, however, require a more complex solution.

“We have seen a shift in the number of students with anxiety and mental health issues in the past several years,” said Principal Lois Bowden, “which has impacted attendance.”

Instead of sending them home if an issue arises, CMS staff has used weekly team meetings and 504 meetings to develop individualized plans for absent students. For example, one student who suffered from anxiety was provided access to a preferred staff member that they could check in with if they were feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

Perhaps the largest obstacle to attendance is misconceptions about the value of attendance. CMS is addressing that with a multi-pronged approach. JMG continues to be a resource to provide support for students who may be chronically absent. In addition, CMS has further developed their advisory program to focus on team building activities, guided lessons and academic support. Advisors have also been working to strengthen connections with the families of their advisees to keep everyone on the same page.

The school also has a new position that has been hugely instrumental in increasing attendance.  The Student Support Specialist, Doreen Armour, tracks attendance, calls families when students become chronically absent, and most importantly, builds relationships with students who might otherwise not be getting social and academic support. She also helps build reentry plans for students who have been chronically absent to help them return to school.

The initiative has already been a success in terms of reinforcing connections with students and their families, according to Principal Lois Bowden. “It has opened the lines of communication between school and home,” she said. “We are able to make a plan and work together to help support the child, which has resulted in positive outcomes.

China Masons host celebration

China Masonic Lodge’s Christmas Celebration (contributed photo)

On Sunday, December 9, 2018, the China Masonic Lodge hosted its annual Christmas Celebration and fundraiser for the Maine Children’s Home Christmas Program. Over 80 people attended the celebration and enjoyed a great meal, family games and activities, and visiting with family and friends from the community. The children (and adults) very much enjoyed the special guest that stopped by to visit. Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and Rudolph. Thanks to everyone’s generous donations, the Maine Children’s Home Christmas Program received a truckload (literally) of presents to help serve over 1600 needy Maine children at holiday time.

Christmas at the Masons contributed photo)

Board not sure solar farm properly assessed

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

by Mary Grow

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion revealed disagreements over five issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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