The Covid-19 grant that is paying for the weekly newsletters from the China Town Office has run out, but Town Manager Becky Hapgood and a majority of the selectmen would like the newsletters to continue.
Hapgood told selectmen at their Oct. 26 all-zoom meeting that mailing the newsletters costs about $520 a week. She proposed cutting back from weekly to bi-monthly mailings for November and December; paying the approximately $2,100 from the $55,000 contingency fund voters gave selectmen at town meeting (it has a balance of about $54,966 to last until June 30, 2021, Hapgood said); and reviewing the situation in January.
She said residents tell her they read and appreciate the newsletters, which report on town business, including things like town office and transfer station hours and upcoming events, pandemic updates and other useful information. Selectman Irene Belanger thought it “a nice touch” to remind people shut in their houses that town office staff have not forgotten them.
Board Chairman Ronald Breton and member Wayne Chadwick were concerned the contingency fund might be needed more urgently for other things. Breton commented that the situation was not unusual: grant funding starts a project and then drops it. He recommended if the newsletter were to continue beyond December it be discussed as part of the 2021 municipal budget, a suggestion Hapgood agreed with.
Ultimately, the board voted 3-1 for four more newsletter issues. Breton, Belanger and Janet Preston were in favor, Chadwick opposed and Donna Mills-Stevens not present.
China’s town office and transfer station will be closed Wednesday, Nov. 11, in observance of Veterans’ Day, and Thursday and Friday, Nov. 26 and 27, for Thanksgiving. On Saturday, Nov. 28, the transfer station will be open as usual, 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The other main issue discussed Oct. 26 was Codes Officer Bill Butler’s report on three dangerous buildings, on Fire Road 9, Fire Road 58 and Lakeview Drive. As legally required, he had notified the owners that he had determined the buildings to be dangerous and requested action.
No owner had replied, he said. Under the law, the next step is to refer the matter to the selectmen, who should consult with the town attorney. After that, the property owners and the codes officer would testify at a public hearing and the selectmen would decide whether to order the structures repaired or demolished – “not a fun thing,” in Butler’s opinion.
If an owner still takes no action, the law allows the town to remedy the dangerous situation and bill the owner. The bill, if unpaid, could become a tax lien; the lien, if unpaid, could result in the town owning the property.
“They’re not safe, so we have to address them,” Breton said of the three buildings. He asked Hapgood to consult with town attorney Amanda Meader.
In response to Breton’s inquiry at a previous meeting, Butler explained China’s penalty assessment guidelines for violations of town ordinances. He said they are based on state Department of Environmental Protection guidelines and therefore deal mostly with environmental issues.
With fines of up to $1,000 a day authorized, Butler considers the guidelines adequate to deter would-be violators.
The main use of the guidelines is not to impose huge fines, but to suggest appropriate figures for negotiating consent agreements between town officials and violators of town ordinances, in Butler’s view. If selectmen want to amend them, he suggested expanding them to include the building code and other not-strictly-environmental ordinances.
In other business Oct. 26, resident Tom Michaud, speaking for the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Committee, said work is starting on installing shoreline protection and a walkway and improving the boat landing at the head of China Lake’s east basin. He is optimistic that the project will be done by the end of November as scheduled.
Selectmen unanimously approved Hapgood’s suggestion they use another approximately $800 from the contingency fund to hire a consultant to review the town’s personnel policy. Covid-related operational changes have outdated parts of it, the manager said.
After an executive session with Meader, Hapgood reported selectmen voted to authorize Meader to sign a settlement agreement with Brent Chesley. Chesley’s permit application for a retaining wall to control erosion along his China Lake waterfront was denied by Butler in May, leading to a split Board of Appeals vote upholding the codes officer and legal discussions.
The consent order resulting from the Oct. 26 discussion, approved in Kennebec Superior Court, allows Chesley to build the wall as approved by an Oct. 2019 state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit, without additional town permits. The court decision says the DEP permit specifies that the retaining wall is “to be constructed upland from the existing normal high water mark of China Lake.”
The next two China selectmen’s meetings are scheduled for Monday evening, Nov. 9, and Monday evening, Nov. 23.
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