Vassalboro selectmen put one long-discussed issue to rest at their April 30 meeting, when they unanimously approved a power purchase agreement with ReVision Energy to buy power from an out-of-town solar project, they hope beginning early in 2021.
However, they and Town Manager Mary Sabins made no progress on the difficult questions of deciding when and how to hold the annual town meeting and what to do if it can’t be held before the fiscal year ends June 30.
They have not yet abandoned the scheduled open town meeting Monday, June 22, followed by a written vote Tuesday, June 23. The June 23 vote would include local elections and the school budget validation referendum, at which voters accept or reject the 2020-21 school budget adopted the day before.
But they spent part of their April 30 meeting considering possible alternatives in case the plan can’t be followed.
Possibilities include holding an open meeting with social distancing, for example by using two different rooms at Vassalboro Community School or having an outdoor meeting on the ballfields. Technology coordinator David Trask said connecting two rooms would be difficult, but possible; providing a public address system on the ballfields would be easy.
If the selectmen were to abandon the open meeting and hold a town meeting by referendum, at least three problems arise. Sabins said the warrant questions would need to be reworded; Board Chairman Lauchlin Titus and Selectman John Melrose believe the required advance notice makes action before June 30 impossible; and Sabins said School Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer has legal advice that the school budget cannot legally be voted by referendum, but requires an open meeting.
Sabins pointed out that gatherings of more than 50 people are probably banned through the summer. Trask asked if several 50-person groups could assemble in different parts of the ballfields.
A related complication is what to do about taxes and spending. The normal procedure is that voters approved the budget; the assessor compares revenues with expenditures and recommends a tax rate; selectmen make the tax commitment, usually in August; and bills go out in time for the first quarterly payment in late September.
If a budget is not approved by June 30, the usual procedure is for the municipality or school department to continue at the previous year’s levels until voters approve a new budget.
Melrose suggested since the current 2019-20 and proposed 2020-21 budgets are very similar, selectmen could set the tax commitment without an approved 2020-21 budget. Sabins was not sure doing so would be legal.
Most requirements related to town meeting procedures are set by the state legislature; legislators could amend them.
Selectmen intend to discuss the issue again at their next regular meeting, scheduled for Thursday evening, May 14, or at a special meeting if Sabins gets information that will let them make decisions sooner.
The solar energy contract is almost identical to the one signed by the Vassalboro School Department on April 28, Portland-based attorney Aga Dixon told selectmen (see The Town Line, April 30). As she did with school board members, Dixon explained the contract in detail, including the estimated savings in the town’s electric bill and the variables that could affect projected figures.
Selectmen authorized Sabins to sign the contract, and Dixon gave her a partial list of follow-up documents she should receive. Selectmen expect Vassalboro will be in time to join the distribution list for power from a proposed solar array in Skowhegan. Dixon said construction should begin in May and the project should be generating power early in 2021.
Vassalboro Sanitary District representative Lee Trahan joined the discussion. He said VSD board members need more time to consider whether to participate in the solar power program. Dixon said if they decided to join too late to sign as part of the selectmen’s contract, they could do a separate contract as the school board did.