Vassalboro selectmen to meet Thursday, April 15, 2021

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15, in person in the Vassalboro Community School gymnasium. Their agenda includes three main items:

  • Review of warrant articles for the June 7 and June 8 annual town meeting;
  • Report on discussion with the state Department of Transportation about a proposed Municipal Partnership Initiative Agreement for a paving and sidewalk project in North Vassalboro; and
  • An update by board Chairman John Melrose on a land use agreement with Kennebec Water District.

Vassalboro school board approves first reading of school budget

Vassalboro Community School (contributed photo)

Budget totals over $8.3 million

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members approved the first reading of their 2021-22 budget April 6, half an hour before they were scheduled to discuss it with the town budget committee.

The budget totals over $8.3 million. The increase in expenditures is over $330,000, or more than four percent.

However, changes in non-tax revenues mean the increase to Vassalboro taxpayers will be about $81,000. School Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur calculated $81,000 represents about one-fourth of a mil, or about 25 cents more in taxes for each $1,000 of property valuation.

Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer and Finance Director Paula Pooler emphasized how easily the budget can change. For example, after the March 30, school board meeting, they subtracted two students from the tuition account, because they will attend Maine charter schools. Charter school tuition goes directly to the school, Pfeiffer explained.

He then added that as of April 6, two new high school students had moved to Vassalboro; their tuition will add about $23,000 to the expenditure side of the budget.

The proposed budget asks voters to transfer $80,000 from surplus to help cover expenditures. The request for the current year was $70,000.

Part of the April 6 discussion focused on whether those withdrawals would leave a healthy-enough surplus. Pooler said she does not yet know whether this year’s expenses will require using any part of the $70,000; she is cautiously optimistic that it will not be spent.

She believes the surplus account will be adequate with the proposed $80,000 transferred out.

After the school board meeting adjourned, budget committee members joined virtually for a joint budget review.

Discussion of possible funding to repave and expand the parking lot led veteran planning board member Douglas Phillips to recommend talking with the Department of Environmental Protection about possible limits on additional impervious surfaces.

Budget committee members met in person two nights later, Thursday, April 8, to decide what more they needed to know about the 2021-22 school budget before they met again with the school board on Tuesday, April 13.

Their main immediate issues were what the school board could legally use federal Covid relief funds for and whether the already-low increase in local taxes could be eliminated.

Longer-range, budget committee members seconded Chairman Rick Denico’s hope that in the future, they could get school budget information earlier. Denico suggested a discussion with school board members over the summer.

On Tuesday, April 13, school board members were scheduled to hold their regular monthly meeting, followed by a joint meeting with the budget committee.

Vassalboro planners look at potential fourth solar development

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members listened to preliminary plans for what might become the town’s fourth commercial solar development, this one on Webber Pond Road. No action was expected and none was taken.

Bill French, from Illinois, Regional Director of Project Development for Sunvest Solar, based in Pewaukee, Wisconsin (“outside Milwaukee,” French explained), presented the proposal virtually.

He expects to have an application ready for review at the June planning board meeting. Depending on progress in negotiations with Central Maine Power Company and other factors, building might start in 2021, but a 2022 start date is more likely.

French said the solar panels will occupy 18.64 acres of a 34.4-acre parcel on the east side of Webber Pond Road, not far south off the Bog Road intersection. Sunvest is leasing the lot from David and Jennifer Jones on a 25-year lease, with two five-year extensions possible.

The panels will be in two sections, with an east-west line of trees between them left standing. Light-absorbing, non-glare solar panels, six or seven feet tall, will rotate to follow the sun. Because the land slopes gradually, no grading is needed.

Sunvest plans to plant native plants, especially flowering ones that will attract bees and other pollinators, under the panels and to mow the area once or twice a year. French said he intends to consult local people on appropriate plants for central Maine.

The project will have no buildings and no outside lighting. There will be little traffic, maybe one or two inspections a month and maintenance work a couple times a year.

Sunvest plans an eight-foot fence around the installation, French said. Planning Board Chairman Virginia Brackett mentioned the deer fence, rather than chainlink, proposed for a pending installation on Cemetery Street and asked about leaving holes near the bottom to allow small animals to go in and out.

In response to other board members’ comments and queries, French said he will find out what state permits he needs, perhaps from the Department of Environmental Protection or the Department of Transportation, and will work with town officials to provide a mutually satisfactory decommissioning plan.

The panels should be useful for at least 25 years, perhaps longer, he said. The 2.75-megawatt project will generate enough electricity to power 550 homes.

Vassalboro planners have previously approved two solar projects, one on Riverside Drive (Route 201) and one on Main Street (Route 32) between East and North Vassalboro. An application for a third on Cemetery Street will probably be on the May 4 planning board agenda.

Board members had three other applications on their April 6 agenda. According to Brackett, they:

  • Approved an amendment to the Stone Road subdivision allowing two lots to be combined;
  • Approved expansion of a deck at 201 Tilton Lane, in the Webber Pond shoreland zone; and
  • Approved Elizabeth Austin’s planned juice bar on Main Street, in North Vassalboro.
    Codes Officer Paul Mitnik, who is retiring for the third time, said former Codes Officer Richard Dolby will be his successor, taking over for the May 4 meeting.

China broadband committee continues developing proposal

by Mary Grow

China Broadband Committee (CBC) members continued discussion of their developing proposal for extended and improved China broadband service at their April 8 meeting.

Joining them virtually were Mission Broadband consultants Mark Van Loan and John Dougherty, and Mark Ouellette, President of Axiom Technologies, of Machias. Axiom is the company CBC members chose to negotiate with, from three respondents to their request for proposals.

The April 8 discussion concentrated on three points: costs, the need for better service and plans to explain those points to China selectmen and voters.

Ouellette and the Mission Broadband consultants had revised Axiom’s original cost estimate from around $9 million for a complete new system to around $6 million. Both figures are based on many assumptions. Four main ones involve timing; the amount of work that will be needed; outside funding sources; and the “take rate,” how many people will sign up for a new service.

Timing: there was consensus that interest rates are likely to increase, and the plan includes the town borrowing through the Maine Bond Bank. Van Loan added that the contractor Axiom works with to build systems predicts a five percent increase in materials costs by June.

Amount of work: Van Loan expects any contractor to bid high and hope to save money. For example, he said, a bid is likely to cover replacing all the poles needed to carry the wiring, but the contractor might find some or most of the existing poles useable.

Outside funding sources: one possibility is that federal funds will cover part of the work China needs, depending on federal regulations and funds available. Ouellette suggested China’s project might be eligible for state planning money.

Take rate: the more people pay monthly user fees, the more revenue comes in to cover operating costs and debt repayment, and until a new service is defined and explained the take rate is a guestimate.

To the experts on the committee, the need for better service is a given. They cited results of a survey, to which 308 China residents responded, describing how they use internet in pandemic conditions.

Sixty percent of respondents said they needed the internet to work from home and 25 percent used it for their home office. Forty percent used it for elementary and high school education and another 11 percent for post-secondary education.

Twenty-three percent of respondents used the internet for telemedicine, a use that committee members expect will increase.

More than 80 percent used the internet for at least one of these categories: researching and getting news; filing taxes; social media; and entertainment.

Committee members Tod Detre and Jamie Pitney explained that Spectrum, which provides broadband to an estimated 70 percent of China residents who are connected, lacks technical capability to increase its speed up – the amount of information a user can send – to meet contemporary needs.

Spectrum was designed with more speed down, so that users can download from the web, with the original focus on entertainment. Now, Detre said, people are sending more – making zoom calls, sharing photos and videos, hosting games, for example.

Suppose, he said, someone in the house is making a zoom call. That call will use most of the available bandwidth going up, and if someone in the next room starts playing a video game, the zoom call will die.

An important difference, Detre and Ouellette said, is that Spectrum uses copper for the final connection from the system to the user’s house, and copper has limited capacity. Axiom uses fiber, which is longer-lived and, as they described it, more adaptable.

Ouellette is unimpressed with the quality of service provided by Consolidated Communications, the company that supplies the other 30 percent of China’s broadband.

Returning to Selectman Wayne Chadwick’s question at the April 1 CBC meeting, Detre asked Ouellette what would happen if something like the 1998 ice storm took down lines all over town. Ouellette replied that both the town and Axiom have insurance; as planning progresses, they can decide which would provide less expensive coverage for a town-owned internet system.

As the virtual meeting ended, Chairman Robert O’Connor mentioned the Spectrum outage earlier in the week that he said had canceled scheduled zoom meetings in other towns. China’s new system will need built-in redundancy, he said later, so a single downed line or equipment malfunction “won’t take out the whole town.”

CBC members have invited China selectmen to a joint meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 29. Ouellette said he would forward more information to Van Loan and Dougherty that they could summarize for CBC members to share with selectmen.

CBC meetings are also scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 15, and Thursday, April 22. The virtual meetings can be viewed as they occur and on tape via the live stream connection at the bottom left of the Town of China website, www.china.govoffice.com.

China public hearing set for April 26 on town meeting decisions

Town meeting by written ballot

by Mary Grow

At their April 12 meeting, China selectmen spent the most time on two topics: the upcoming April 26 public hearings on June 8 town meeting decisions, and mask-wearing at the transfer station.

The June 8 town meeting will be by written ballot, so voters will not be able to get questions answered as they vote. The April 26 hearings, one on the proposed changes to the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agreement that are presented as Art. 16 and one on the rest of the warrant, will be the only chance for group discussion.

The town website, china.govoffice.com, has a wealth of information about the hearings. Under the Elections tab on the left side of the screen, voters can find:

  • The Zoom link to participate in the hearings.
  • The warrant articles, in two forms: “Public Hearing Warrant Articles 2021” reproduces the four-page document mailed to residents, with brief explanations, and includes the Zoom link; and “Approved Warrant for ATBM June 8, 2021” is the warrant as it will appear in the 2019-20 town report, due out before the meeting.
  • The revised TIF document, titled “Second Amendment TIF,” with the changes marked; and a related document titled “Findings.”
  • A budget workbook that shows the items included in each warrant article and a comparison between the 2021-22 appropriations requests and prior years’ budgets and expenditures.

Some of the information, including instructions on participating in the hearing, is duplicated in a full-page notice in the April 8 issue of The Town Line (and again on page 8 in this issue) and in the four-page mailing to residents earlier this month.

Residents are invited to submit questions about the warrant to the town office by mail, email, telephone or hand delivery up to 4 p.m. on April 26. Participants in the hearing will be able to comment live at the time.

The TIF hearing is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. When TIF questions have been answered, the hearing on warrant articles 1 through 26 will begin. The hearings will be followed by a selectmen’s meeting that will start at 6:30 p.m. or after the second hearing, whichever is earlier.

On past showings, selectmen expect a low turnout for the hearing. But, they said cheerfully, on April 26 they might get 50 people – or 500.

The mask issue came up during the April 12 town department reports, delivered by Town Manager Becky Hapgood. Selectboard Chairman Ronald Breton claimed the mask mandate that applies to all town properties has not been obeyed at the transfer station.

Hapgood replied that signs are posted and staff are masked. She does not want to ask staff to risk confrontations by telling people to put on masks.

During the discussion that followed, Breton queried town liability if someone claimed to have contracted Covid-19 at the China transfer station. Selectman Blane Casey thought there was no problem, because someone who consistently refused to wear a mask and got sick would be unable to prove a source of infection.

In other business April 12, Hapgood reported for Public Works Director Shawn Reed that the Welcome to China sign on Route 3 is repaired and back up; the directional sign in South China listing other Maine towns named for foreign countries and cities (“the Postcard Sign”) is down for repairs; the docks at the public landing at the head of China Lake’s east basin are in; and weight-limit road-posting signs have been removed for the year.

The state has extended two deadlines, Hapgood said. Town Clerk Angela Nelson reported that the late fee for 2021 dog licenses will not be charged until June 1. Assistant to the assessor’s agent Kelly Grotton said applications for tax exemptions – homestead, tree growth and others allowed in Maine – can be submitted until 30 days after the state-wide emergency declaration ends or until China’s tax commitment day, whichever comes first.

Andrew Clark presented with Spirit of America Award at Albion town meeting

Albion Fire Chief Andrew Clark, left, accepts the Spirit of America Award from the town’s selectboard chairman Beverly Bradstreet during the Albion town meeting. (photo courtesy of Beverly Bradstreet)

The town of Albion presented its 2021 Spirit of America Award to Fire Chief Andrew Clark, by Board of Selectmen Chairman Beverly Bradstreet, at the annual town meeting, held on March 22.

Andy has been the Fire Chief of the Albion Fire Department since 2012 and a member of the department for over 20 years. Due to Andy’s diligence, the department has received over $1 million in grants in the last 20 years, receiving $410,000 in 2020 alone.

He has done this along with working full time as a fire fighter and EMT in the Scarborough Fire Department and in his “spare time” he has also earned a bachelor’s degree in fire science and a master’s degree in public administration.

Along with efficiently running and improving the Albion Fire Department, he has been instrumental in helping to make improvements in the Albion Town Office and Besse Building. Andy’s dedication to the town came across again in 2020 when Andy refused to take his stipend as fire chief and a stipend as a firefighter. He did this because he wanted to use that money in the fire department budget so he would not have to ask for an increase from Albion tax payers for his budget during a year of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Albion selectmen and town office staff thank Andy for his dedication to the Albion Fire Department and for his service to the town of Albion as this is what the “Spirit of America Award” is all about.

Fairfield issues request for qualifications for public drinking water infrastructure planning project

Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling.

The town of Fairfield has issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) to support civil and environmental engineering services for the planning and development of a public drinking water infrastructure plan. This initiative will inform the town’s assessment of existing municipal public infrastructure amid the town’s ongoing per-and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) concerns, including costs and build-out scenarios for the expansion of public infrastructure.

Identified areas throughout the town will be evaluated for potential infrastructure expansions, as the expected project area extends between Route 139 via the Norridgewock Road and the Ohio Hill Road near its intersection with Route 201. Fairfield’s town council will review qualified firms and/or teams of consultants to assist with developing a comprehensive Public Water Infrastructure Expansion Plan, which will include, but is not limited to, identifying the scale, scope, and costs associated with extending public water to the PFAS affected area(s).

“We are dedicated to launching a thoughtful and comprehensive process, which will incorporate engaging subject matter experts and reviewing success models. These efforts will focus on transparent and community-oriented input approaches as we evaluate RFQ responses that fit the needs of the municipality,” said Fairfield Town Manager, Michelle Flewelling. “The evaluation process will illustrate continuing efforts by the town to achieve safe and clean drinking water for the town’s residents and community.”

The town encourages interested parties to submit preliminary proof of concept(s) for how they believe their vision coincides with, and supports, the town of Fairfield’s stated objectives. Additional information regarding interested firms or teams of consultants will be especially helpful to Fairfield’s Town Council and should include relevant project management and planning experience, previously completed infrastructure projects, and preliminary design and engineering guidance for the future planning and potential construction of a new and/or expanded public water drinking system(s).

Please submit any questions and/or associated requests for information (RFI) to the Town Manager at mflewelling@fairfieldme.com, subject line: “Infrastructure RFQ”, no later than April 23, 2021. All RFI submissions will be answered by April 30, 2021. RFQ responses are due no later than 2:00 p.m. (ET) on May 7, 2021. The RFQ and more information about this development opportunity can be found on the Town of Fairfield’s website.

Submitted by Sabrina Jandreau, Development Coordinator, Central Maine Growth Council

Vassalboro selectmen, school committee suggest compactor supplement at transfer station

by Mary Grow

The transfer station was again the major topic as Vassalboro selectmen and budget committee members met sequentially at Vassalboro Community School the evening of April 1. The two boards seem to have reached agreement on a recommendation to voters at the June 7 town meeting

John Melrose, chairman of the selectboard, had condensed earlier discussions into a two-part recommendation. Phase one, to be done in 2021-22 if voters consent, involves buying and installing a new compactor that would supplement, not replace, the old one.

When selectmen and Road Foreman Eugene Field toured the transfer station the morning of March 24, Field pointed out that it was designed to have two compactors.

The second compactor Melrose sees going where open-top containers are now located, close to the current compactor. His plan includes the update to the electrical system that board members earlier agreed was essential.

Melrose recommends adding a hopper, a variable frequency drive, controls and a shelter for the second compactor. His proposal includes security alarms and gates and relocating the control building.

His estimated cost for the work came to $117,500. Reserve funds will cover about $95,000 of the total. Melrose recommended transferring $85,000 from surplus (formally called undesignated fund balance), with the hope that overfunding will give next year’s selectboard leeway to expand the project.

One suggestion he relayed from Field was to consider buying a skid steer instead of replacing the backhoe. The backhoe is used to compress materials in the open-top containers; the new compactor would minimize use of open-tops; and a more versatile skid steer should be more useful.

If the next selectboard chooses to do nothing more at the transfer station, the extra money can be put back into surplus. Selectmen and budget committee members agreed that the town’s surplus account is large enough to stand the withdrawal.

Town Manager Mary Sabins had prepared a revised budget sheet and revised town meeting warrant articles to match Melrose’s proposal. Selectmen and budget committee members supported them.

Budget committee members also supported selectmen’s recommendations on all other warrant articles for which firm figures were available April 1. They planned to meet next on April 6 with the school board.

In other business at the selectboard meeting, board members unanimously awarded two bids.

They sold the old fire truck to the highest of four bidders, Asian Auto Services, of Plaistow, New Hampshire, for $3,632.12. Firefighter Michael Vashon said the truck was sold “as is, where is”; he expects someone from New Hampshire to come and get it. Sabins said proceeds will go into the fire truck reserve fund.

For installing a new boiler at the North Vassalboro fire station, selectmen chose the lowest of three bids, $17,250 from Houle’s Plumbing and Heating, of Waterville, provided the price will hold and the company will wait for payment until the new fiscal year begins July 1.

After speaking with a Houle’s representative April 5, Sabins emailed that the company will buy the boiler right away, before any price increase, and will not expect the first town payment until July 1. The second payment will be due when installation starts and the final payment when the job is satisfactorily completed.

Should town meeting voters decide not to buy the boiler, Vassalboro will pay Houle’s a restocking fee, the manager wrote.

The selectmen also signed Sabins’ three-year contract renewal.

After the April 6 meeting, budget committee meetings are also scheduled for 7 p.m., Thursday, April 8, and Tuesday, April 13. The next selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Thursday, April 15; the agenda is supposed to include final review of the June 7 and 8 town meeting warrant. All meetings are currently scheduled to be held in person at Vassalboro Community School.

Vassalboro school board fails to finalize budget proposal

Vassalboro Community School (contributed photo)

by Mary Grow

Meeting March 30, Vassalboro School Board members were still unable to come up with a final 2021-22 budget proposal. They intended to try again Tuesday evening, April 6.

Part of the hold-up was external, including lack of information on what Vassalboro can expect from new federal pandemic money and what restrictions will be put on spending it. Pfeiffer is clear that the federal money cannot be used to replace existing budget items; it is to be used for future oriented projects, he and Finance Director Paula Pooler agreed.

Vassalboro and other schools used some of the last round of federal money to buy new buses that otherwise would have been in future budgets. One question Pfeiffer and Pooler raised is whether federal money could repave the school parking lot, a project that is no longer in the board’s draft budget.

Another unknown as of March 30 was the 2021-22 increase in insurance costs. Pooler said she hoped to have a firm figure by April 5.

Yet another external issue that comes up every year is how much Vassalboro will owe for high-school tuition for the full fiscal year. Every year the state sets the next year’s tuition rate in December. Every year Vassalboro administrators try to determine how many students will be in high school and which of the schools allowed by Vassalboro’s school choice policy each student will choose; and to guestimate how much tuition rates will increase in December.

The major internal factor still in doubt was the special education budget, which Special Education Director Tanya Thibeau was adjusting as she accounted for expected needs.

In addition to the budget discussion, board members agreed on a schedule for April that includes going back to five-day-a-week in-school classes beginning April 8 and continuing after spring vacation week (April 19 through 23) “unless things go crazy,” Pfeiffer said.

Because of the vacation week, the April regular Vassalboro board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 13, instead of the usual third Tuesday of the month.

China Broadband Committee rearranges future schedule

by Mary Grow

With four of China’s five selectmen joining their April 1 virtual meeting, China Broadband Committee (CBC) members rearranged their future schedule and discussed what might be good news.

Committee members had been scheduled to make a presentation at the April 26 selectboard meeting. Instead, they added a Thursday, April 29, meeting to their schedule, with selectboard members specifically invited to join the live stream.

The CBC was already scheduled to meet at 7 p.m., April 8, April 15 and April 22. Selectmen – and interested residents – are welcome to watch those meetings also, via the Live Stream tab at the lower left of the town website, china.govoffice.com.

The maybe good news came to CBC Chairman Robert O’Connor in an email from Peggy Schaffer, Director of the ConnectMaine Authority. She notified him that the 2021 American Recovery Act will provide $23 million in broadband funding to Kennebec County, with China’s share expected to be $430,000.

Schaffer’s email said the United States Treasury has not issued guidelines for using the funds. CBC members therefore do not know how much, if any, money might be applicable to China’s project.

CBC members looked into an earlier grant that provided funds only for unserved and underserved areas. Most China residents have access to broadband service at some level. At the April 1 meeting, committee member Jamie Pitney cited two estimates of households with no access, out of 2,100 to 2,300 properties: 83, according to ConnectMaine, or 140, according to current provider Spectrum Community Solutions.

Schaffer suggested the CBC prepare an informational presentation to the Kennebec County Commissioners.

CBC members spent most of the April 1 meeting repeating previous discussions for the benefit of selectboard members, with O’Connor, Tod Detre and Jamie Pitney sharing their expertise.

They said China needs better broadband service than Spectrum can provide with its current equipment and technology. A faster, more reliable and more flexible system would expand opportunities for residents, including adults working from home, children attending school remotely and everyone looking for entertainment and communication; and it would give China an advantage in attracting new, high-tech businesses.

They prefer a model that would have the town own the infrastructure and contract out building it, maintaining it and providing service. Under that model, should a service provider be unsatisfactory, town officials could seek a different one.

After reviewing proposals from Spectrum and two other companies, CBC members are negotiating with Axiom Technologies, of Machias, with assistance from consultants Mark Van Loan and James Dougherty of Portland-based Mission Broadband.

They are not ready to make a recommendation to the selectboard. They have no firm cost estimates; no consensus on covering costs (a bond issue has been discussed); and no agreed-upon definition of services to be provided.

Their present position is that the contractor(s) would do the billing and would maintain the town-owned infrastructure. After Selectman Wayne Chadwick asked what if something like the 1998 ice storm brought down lines all over town, CBC members thanked him for the reminder and planned to include a provision ensuring the contractor handled disasters as well as routine repairs.

Chadwick remained skeptical about town involvement. Everything government does is “top-heavy and inefficient,” he said; he would prefer a private contractor take on all aspects of the service.

CBC members agreed they will present updates at selectmen’s meetings, either by Selectman Janet Preston, the board’s non-voting representative on the CBC, or by O’Connor. Should they get new information, like Schaffer’s email, between meetings, they will share that, too.