Selectmen, fire chiefs engage in heated debate over town funding

China Village Volunteer Fire Department. (Internet photo)

by Mary Grow

China selectmen and fire chiefs went another round in their months-long disagreement at the May 13 selectmen’s meeting, with considerable shouting, many contradictions, some assigning of blame and eventually a partial clarification of positions, but no resolution.

Town meeting voters annually approve money for the fire departments for operations and, in recent years, stipends for volunteer firefighters. Payment of stipends to volunteers in nonprofit organizations is regulated by state and federal laws and rules. Firefighters and selectmen have argued since last fall over their respective roles in overseeing town funds, especially stipends, though at times the argument has seemed to cover all monies the departments have from any source for any purpose.

According to the discussions, stipend money has not been disbursed according to law in the past. Dennis Heath, China’s town manager for almost a year, wants it done legally.

Palermo attorney Matt Evans came to the May 13 meeting as the firefighters’ spokesman – not their lawyer, he emphasized, or he would have worn a suit and tie. He began by asking why the firefighters were not listed as a business item rather than under reports.

Town Clerk Becky Hapgood, filling in for Heath, said she had been told to list the firefighters under reports.

Evans said he was not going to report. Instead, he asked whether the board of selectmen intended to give the three fire departments the money town meeting voters approved for them on April 6.

Board Chairman Robert MacFarland answered yes, both operational funds and money for stipends, subject to state and federal regulations – and the fight was on, because the fire chiefs believe they can obey state and federal regulations without help from selectmen.

Evans’ next question, never specifically answered, was what documentation the fire departments need to provide along with their annual requests for town funds. He asked further, what are the state and federal guidelines and who interprets them?

“You’re making up nonsensical stuff and then you’re going to enforce it on them,” Evans charged.

Evans’ presence did not prevent chiefs Bill Van Wickler (Weeks Mills), Tim Theriault (China Village) and Dick Morse (South China) from speaking for themselves.

Their position is that they are entitled to oversee their own expenditures, and the selectmen do not need to review every transaction. Van Wickler said he had found and shared as an example the guidelines formula selectmen and firefighters agreed to some months ago, and “it’s our responsibility to use the formula.

“We have all the tools we need to do this right. Trust us,” he said.

Morse agreed: the departments, not the selectmen, are responsible for obeying the law. The selectmen’s responsibility is to hand over the money town voters approved.

Selectmen’s position is that because the money in question is the taxpayers’, their responsibility is to make sure it is spent appropriately.

Board member Ronald Breton summarized toward the end of the discussion: distribution of town funds “belongs to the board” and the town manager tells the selectmen what’s legal.

Theriault, who is a state representative as well as a local fire chief, said part of the problem is that the legislature “does a bad job of making laws.” Concerning volunteers’ stipends, legislators made a law that state officials refuse to enforce.

In a two-hour conversation with the head of the Department of Labor, he learned that administration of volunteer firefighters’ stipends is ignored, because state regulators value volunteers and won’t do something that might deter them from volunteering. Breton reminded Theriault that Town Manager and Town Treasurer Heath “sees it differently, as the guy who signs the checks.”

“So maybe we need somebody with a little more common sense,” Theriault replied, touching off a short discussion of the influence of the military where Heath worked and Oklahoma where he got his governmental experience.

Van Wickler raised a side issue: selectmen have faulted firefighters for not reporting at selectmen’s meetings, but, Van Wickler asked, why should non-employees join town employees in reporting every other week?

Board Chairman Robert MacFarland retorted, “Then why do you take town money?”

Theriault reminded him that the town is responsible for providing fire protection. Town officials’ options are to create a municipal fire department, contract with another town or contract with some other party, like local volunteer firefighters’ organizations.

After three-quarters of an hour’s discussion, selectmen turned to other business, including hearing employees’ reports:

  • The town assessor is inspecting properties; he drives a white vehicle with an identifying sign.
  • Town police have been dealing with speeding complaints and will continue to do so.
  • Eleven beavers have been trapped and relocated so far and the culverts they had blocked have been or are being cleared.
  • The codes enforcement officer is available Tuesdays and Thursdays and by appointment Wednesdays and Fridays. Asked about the recently hired assistant codes officer, MacFarland replied he “didn’t work out.”

By unanimous votes, the board:

  • Approved a liquor license renewal for the China Dine-ah;
  • Accepted a petition to lower the speed limit on Village Street in South China to 35 miles an hour, a request that will be forwarded to the state transportation department; and
  • Approved police Sergeant Tracey Frost’s plan to buy three new portable radios to match those used by Kennebec County.

Since the next regular selectmen’s meeting would fall on the Memorial Day holiday, Hapgood said it is rescheduled, probably to Tuesday evening, May 28.

See also:

COMMUNITY COMMENTARY: An open letter to China residents from the town’s fire chiefs

China selectmen respond to fire chiefs’ letter

 
 

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