China selectmen work on warrant; move town meeting date

by Mary Grow

China selectmen continued work on 2021-22 finances and the warrant for the 2021 town business meeting at their Feb. 16 meeting, including moving the town meeting date.

Instead of Tuesday, May 18, the meeting will be Tuesday, June 8, at the same time as voters approve or reject the 2021-22 school budget. Selectmen currently plan a written-ballot vote; they and Town Manager Becky Hapgood are therefore combining expenditure requests and policies to make the warrant as short as they can.

Regional School Unit (RSU) #18 Superintendent Carl Gartley made a preliminary presentation on school finances. He began with charts showing that China’s school is one of the least expensive of 11 in the area, but students score among the top in standardized tests.

China’s school is “one of the cheapest around and getting some of the best results in the area,” he summarized.

Gartley said grants helped cover extra pandemic-related costs. He expects more special funding in the coming year.

The grants could not be used for normal operations, he said, but they did update the bus fleet. The RSU used local funds to accomplish other goals, like catching up with maintenance and promoting energy efficiency.

At this point, Gartley is predicting about a 2.5 percent increase in the 2021-22 school budget, compared to the current year.

Turning to other parts of the budget, Hapgood said she had information from FirstPark Executive Director James Dinkle that the Oakland-based business park intends to charge China about $25,000 for continued membership, payable in December 2021 and May 2022 – and to return about the same amount in revenue in June 2022.

Selectman Wayne Hapgood thought the park should be doing better, considering Maine’s active real estate market. Hapgood said Dinkle expects to sell all remaining lots, given time.

Selectmen decided they need more information before deciding whether to recommend China continue its FirstPark membership.

Board members authorized Hapgood to apply for a 12-week summer intern through the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Southern Maine. Since the intern’s job would be to promote economic development and business investment in China, the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) fund could pay for him or her.

After a brief discussion of Palermo’s use of China’s transfer station and the amount Palermo pays China, board Chairman Ronald Breton said he and Hapgood will talk with Palermo officials.

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 1.

The food service program, also called the nutrition program or the school lunch program, in Regional School Unit (RSU) #18 (to which Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome, and Sidney belong) is in debt, like many other food service programs in Maine schools. RSU Superintendent Carl Gartley gave China selectmen a clear explanation of the problem.

The program is not part of the regular school budget and is supposed to be self-supporting, Gartley said. Federal subsidies are based on assumed efficient programs, and small schools with individual kitchens like those in RSU #18 are not as efficient as the federal program assumes.

For example, Gartley said, RSU #18 has five separate programs, each with two or three employees, for a total of a dozen or more people. The federal formula assumes six or seven people can feed all the RSU students, and pays accordingly.

Gartley emphasized that unpaid meal accounts do not contribute significantly to the deficit.

RSU #18, again like other Maine school units, has been paying down the program debt as much as possible, given other needs.

China committee takes first look at 2021-22 budget

by Mary Grow

China Budget Committee members held their first meeting on the proposed 2021-22 town budget Wednesday evening, Feb. 10. Town Manager Becky Hapgood presented the selectmen’s recommendations, expecting no immediate decisions.

Four topics drew brief discussion.

  • Committee member Elizabeth Curtis queried the request for funds for a building in the China School Forest behind China Primary School. Hapgood replied that proponent Anita Smith foresees using it for year-round programs for children and adults and for storing forest-related equipment and supplies. Smith had given no estimate of the number of people who might use the building.
  • Hapgood summarized the proposal to eliminate the local police force and instead contract for Kennebec County Sheriff’s deputies to cover China 10 hours a week, in addition to the regular patrols. She explained that the part-time officers from other departments who make up China’s local police often lack time to work as many hours as expected.
  • Committee Chairman Robert Batteese asked whether Palermo’s contributions for use of the China transfer station cover costs. Hapgood said selectmen planned to review the contract with Palermo at their Feb. 16 meeting and to talk with Palermo officials.
  • Hapgood said if China repaves the planned five miles of town road in 2021, repaving will be behind schedule. In 2020, she said, six miles of repaving were initially scheduled and four miles were done.

Budget committee members were still waiting for final recommendations from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Committee on TIF contributions to the 2021-22 budget, and for bills from Kennebec County and FirstPark, in Oakland. The TIF Committee was scheduled to meet Wednesday evening, Feb. 17.

Committee members decided their next meeting should be to review the selectmen’s warrant for what was then expected to be the May 18 town business meeting, and discussed alternate dates depending on when selectmen put the warrant in final form.

However, selectmen at their Feb. 16 meeting rescheduled the town business meeting from May 18 to Tuesday, June 8, extending deadlines for pre-meeting preparations.

VA to contact vets for vaccine shots

Veterans Administration facility at Togus. (Internet photo)

The VA Maine care teams will begin to schedule Covid-19 vaccinations for eligible veterans. Through VEText, text messages will inform eligible veterans their facility is offering the vaccine and will come from the short number, 53079.

The VEText program allows veterans to confirm or cancel scheduled appointments and sends reminders for visits via text message.

With VEText, simply text “start” to 53079 to opt-in to receiving VEText messaging. Every enrolled veteran with a cell phone number listed in their health record is automatically enrolled to receive text messages.

The care teams will notify eligible veterans to make a vaccine appointment directly by text message. They will also continue to contact veterans by phone.

Veterans can update phone numbers online at va.gov/profile.

To learn more about VEText, go to va.gov/HEALTH/VEText­–FAQs.asp.

Rep. Bradstreet announces local projects in Maine DOT work plan

Rep. Dick Bradstreet

State Representative Bradstreet (R-Vassalboro) has announced that the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) Work Plan for Calendar Years 2021, 2022 and 2023 is available. The estimated value of work in the plan totals more than 2,180 individual work items with a total value of $2.71 billion.

The MDOT Work Plan for House District 80 includes five projects for Vassalboro, Somerville and Windsor totaling $1.63 million.
The Work Plan involves paving, reconstructing existing roads as well as rehabilitation.

“MDOT Work Plan projects will benefit our local communities in many ways,” said Rep. Bradstreet. “I am pleased to see several MDOT projects scheduled for the next three years in our area. They will make our roads safer and benefit local economy.”

The full work plan, searchable by municipality, is available at the Maine Department of Transportation’s website: https://www.maine.gov/mdot/projects/workplan/search/.

China emergency committee meets to continue update

China’s Emergency Preparedness Committee met virtually the afternoon of Feb. 18 to continue updating China’s Emergency Action Plan, a project started earlier in the month.

Town Clerk Angela Nelson said committee members decided who will be responsible for updating different sections of the plan. They scheduled their next zoom meeting for 1 p.m. Thursday, March 11.

VASSALBORO: Proposed marijuana ordinance presented in final form

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro selectmen, assisted by Town Attorney Kristin Collins, of Augusta-based Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau & Pachios, put the proposed new marijuana ordinance in final form at their Feb. 18 meeting.

The ordinance will be submitted to Vassalboro voters for approval or rejection at the June 7-8 annual town meeting. If voters accept it, the effective date will be Feb. 18, 2021.

The ordinance has two main purposes. It prohibits all future marijuana businesses in Vassalboro, with the exception of licensed caregivers and their cultivation facilities of up to 1,000 square feet. And it regulates businesses existing or having received permits as of Feb. 18, including requiring that the owners apply for a town license.

The bulk of the ordinance deals with requirements for obtaining the local license. There will be license fees; selectmen postponed setting them. At an earlier meeting, Collins told them other Maine towns charge from $500 to $5,000.

Also joining the virtual selectmen’s meeting, by telephone, was engineer Al Hodsdon of A. E. Hodsdon, in Waterville, who has proposed a redesign for the transfer station. Hodsdon said pandemic-induced price increases and materials shortages might delay new equipment.

But, he said, he should be ready to seek bids for the redesign, which includes a second driveway and relocated equipment to make operations safer, in a few weeks. He estimates bids are likely to be in the $300,000 range, and asked board members if they were comfortable with that figure.

Selectmen promptly began proposing a phased-in plan that would spread the work and the cost over several years. Hodsdon countered that if they wanted to borrow the full amount, “You’ll never get money cheaper than it is right now.”

Neither selectmen nor Transfer Station Manager George Hamar had had time to review Hodsdon’s plan thoroughly, so action was postponed. Board members unanimously asked Hodsdon, with Hamar’s advice, to consider priorities and phasing, and asked Town Manager Mary Sabins to schedule follow-up discussion.

After two workshop meetings to consider the 2021-22 municipal budget, selectmen think they have it close to ready for budget committee review. They asked Sabins to prepare a fifth draft before their next meeting.

At this stage, without complete final figures, selectmen think their recommendations will not increase local property taxes significantly. To reach that point, they recommend eliminating items they know will disappoint others, like postponing repaving the fire station and town office dooryards.

The school budget, which is a major part of annual expenditures from taxation, is not yet finished. Sabins said school and town audits for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020, have been delayed by the pandemic. Until the audits are complete, neither she nor school officials know exactly how much was in unassigned fund balances (surplus) when the current fiscal year started.

Codes Officer Paul Mitnik joined the virtual meeting to ask what selectmen want to do about abandoned buildings in town. He received a complaint about an empty mobile home that is attracting rats and feral cats, he said, and Vassalboro has other empty, deteriorating buildings.

After consideration of alternatives, selectmen asked Mitnik to get in touch with the owners of the complained-of property and see if they are willing to repair or remove the mobile home. If the owners cannot or will not cooperate, Mitnik is to report back to the selectmen.

Selectmen agreed unanimously to a proposed contract with Calderwood Engineering, of Richmond, to supervise work on the Gray Road culvert replacement.

The next regular Vassalboro selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, March 4. The starting time is half an hour earlier than usual to allow for a meeting with the budget committee beginning at 7 p.m. The meeting might be in person if budget committee members are agreeable and if Sabins can arrange to use the gymnasium at Vassalboro Community School.

China planners defer to next meeting

by Mary Grow

Three China Planning Board members at the Feb. 9 board meeting spent another hour discussing a proposed solar ordinance and whether additional language about shoreland stabilization should be added to town regulations (see The Town Line, Feb. 4).

At the suggestion of Vice-Chairman Toni Wall, acting as chairman in Randy Downer’s absence, they deferred decisions to the board’s Feb. 23 meeting, when Wall hopes all five members will be able to attend.

The Tuesday, Feb. 23, meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. and is likely to be by Zoom again.

Discussions continue over retirement benefits

by Steve Ball

Windsor Town Manager Theresa Haskell (photo by Sandra Isaac)

During the February 2 meeting, the selectmen discussed the retirement match for town employees. A discussion took place over whether to increase the retirement match benefit by percent over the term of the employees tenure. Windsor Town Manager Theresa Haskell will provide more details of expense and employee qualification at the next selectmen’s meeting.

Selectmen Richard H. Gray Jr., Andrew Ballantyne, Ray Bates, William Appel, and Ronald F. Brann were all in attendance. No one from the public attended.

The town manager presented the monthly report for the transfer station. For the month of January the town was up $2,411.35 in revenue from last year and the town is $9,460.00 up for the current fiscal year.

Action on approving the Re­vised Employee Manual was moved to the next selectmen’s meeting. In addition, the town manager handed out a proposed COVID-19 procedure for the board of selectmen to review and will be discussed at the next board meeting.

The town manger said the town currently has 83 unregistered dogs compared to 50 at this time last year. It was noted that since the town of Windsor is still in the State of Emergency because of COVID-19, all unregistered dogs will have their registrations extended until 30 days following the termination of the state of emergency by Gov. Janet Mills

China broadband committee reviews three bids for expanded service

by Mary Grow

Members of China’s Broadband Committee (CBC) displayed impressive technological understanding as they reviewed summaries of three bids for expanded and improved broadband service in town at their Feb. 11 meeting.

Tod Detre, not hesitant about answering technical questions, admitted that “my eyes glazed over” as he tried to read some of the legal sections of the bids; but fellow CBC member Jamie Pitney is an attorney and had that aspect covered.

The committee received three bids for the project, from Sertex Broadband Solutions, of Plainfield, Connecticut; Axiom Technologies of Machias, Maine; and Spectrum Community Solutions of Augusta, Maine.

The bid summaries were prepared by Mark van Loan, of Mission Broadband, the committee’s consultant for the bid process. Van Loan and John Dougherty took part in the zoom committee meeting, as did Brent Chesley from China’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Committee and Ben Topor, from Spectrum, the only bidder represented.

Discussion focused on what questions committee members need answered to help them compare the three bids. Van Loan and committee chairman Robert O’Connor had prepared some in advance, and other members contributed others.

If a proposal is to be submitted to voters at the Tuesday, June 8, town business meeting, committee members need to make a decision, figure out the financial implications and have their proposal reviewed by selectmen and the budget committee by mid-March. The town business meeting had originally been set for May 18, but selectmen voted to postpone it to the later date.

They therefore accepted Van Loan’s offer to send questions out on Feb. 12 with answers requested by Wednesday, Feb. 17. They scheduled a meeting to review additional information for 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 18, and meetings to interview one, two or all three bidders for Monday, Feb. 22, beginning at 5 p.m.

Sertex and Axiom each propose to build a new system from the ground up and to have it become town-owned. Both would oversee a separate construction company. Sertex would also supervise a service provider; Axiom would itself be the service provider.

Spectrum would build on its existing service network in China, including extending service to, by its figures, 120 households not now served. Other sources listed fewer expansions needed.

Detre said repeatedly his number one goal is to extend broadband service to everyone in town. No one argued. Committee members also discussed other services, like cable television, and how they would be provided by each bidder.

South China’s Fieldstone Quickstop under new ownership

The Fieldstone Quickstop in South China. (photo from Google streetview)

Maritime Energy buys convenience store from long-time owner Thad Barber

by Eric W. Austin

The Fieldstone Quickstop in South China, at the intersection of Routes 32 and 3, located at 190 Route 3, has recently been sold to Maritime Energy.

Thadius Barber, a resident of China for all but four of his 48 years, purchased the establishment from Mike Rocque in 2004. It was just the right time for a sale, he explained in an email.

“I owned [and] operated the store for almost 17 years. [I’m] mostly going to miss our amazing customers and the best employee family I could ask for,” said Barber. “Thank you, town of China. Thanks to my wife, Darlene, and my four amazing children.”

What’s next for Barber? “Gonna lay low for a while or until life gets back to normal,” he said. “I will describe it as a temporary retirement.”

The new owners, Maritime Energy, with the main office headquartered in Rockland, is a local Maine company with five offices and 12 other convenience store locations across Midcoast Maine. “We generally try to have stores in the same area as our energy offices,” explained Charon Curtis, Vice President of store operations for the company, in a phone interview. One of their energy offices is a short distance east from the Fieldstone Quickstop, on Route 3.

Curtis said they are not planning big changes for the location. Gasoline sold at the pumps will still be branded Sunoco, and they will continue to sell Amsoil products. The Dunkin’s coffee counter will also remain. The Subway sandwich shop, which closed in December of 2020, will not return, but Maritime plans to offer their own selection of pizza and sandwiches.

“We have our own Lighthouse Delis,” said Curtis, “and Terry Haskell, the store manager there, is a very good chef and she is putting her finesse on our sandwiches. We did not keep the Subway franchise, but we’re basically doing all that Subway offered and more.”