China select board calls special meeting to address board of appeals ordinance

Favor 6 percent pay increase for town workers in proposed budget

by Mary Grow

China select board members have scheduled a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 6, in the town office meeting room. They hope it will be a short one; the primary purposes are to finish – temporarily — talking about the Board of Appeals Ordinance and to make remaining preliminary recommendations on the 2023-24 municipal budget.

At the Feb. 27 select board meeting, planning board co-chairmen Toni Wall and James Wilkens said they thought the Board of Appeals Ordinance was in a final draft by Feb. 14, for the planning board to review at its Feb. 28 meeting (see The Town Line, Feb. 23, p. 2).

They learned, however, that after Wall finished and distributed to fellow board members the “final” version, town attorney Amanda Meader reviewed the draft again and more changes, mostly not substantive, were made.

“What copy are we supposed to look at tomorrow night?” Wall asked.

Town Manager Rebecca Hapgood said the latest version was not yet on the website because it had been finished earlier that day. It would be available the morning of Feb. 28, she said.

After 20 minutes’ discussion, there was agreement that planning board members would send Feb. 28 comments to the select board, and select board members would consider them March 6.

Due to the Feb. 28 snowstorm, the planning board discussion was rescheduled to March 2.

Select board members’ major project Feb. 27 was a detailed review of the draft FY 2023-24 town budget.

Hapgood does not yet have final, complete information on either costs or revenues. From preliminary information, she said the municipal budget will not affect the tax rate, but predicted a 2023-24 increase to cover the Kennebec County tax and the school budget.

Select board budget recommendations will be forwarded to the budget committee for review and recommendations. That committee’s recommendations will be reported back to the select board.

The June town business meeting warrant will present the budget articles, with the two committees’ recommendations (whether identical or different), for voters to accept or reject.

Three themes recurred through the Feb. 27 discussion: the labor market is highly competitive; the cost of everything from sunscreen to plow trucks has increased; and when something breaks down, getting parts or repairs is a slow process, if they are available at all. Spokespeople for town organizations added a fourth note: it is increasingly hard to get volunteers, so some work may need to be paid for if it is to continue.

The longest discussion was over town employees’ salaries. Hapgood proposed a 6.7 percent increase across the board, to retain employees in a competitive labor market.

Select board members seconded Hapgood’s praise of China’s employees, but were also concerned about taxpayers. At least one board member initially preferred 5 percent raises.

A vote on 6.7 percent was defeated, with Jeanne Marquis and Janet Preston in favor and Blane Casey, chairman Wayne Chadwick and Brent Chesley opposed.

Toward the end of the meeting board members returned to the topic, after reducing the budget line for the select board by $9,000 and, at Marquis’s suggestion, adding the $9,000 to employees’ salaries. They unanimously approved recommending a 6 percent increase.

Hapgood proposed a new part-time employee, a community program director who would coordinate and assist with activities including the weekly senior gatherings (“That group is having a blast,” she commented as she recommended increasing financial support from $1,000 this year to $1,500 next), outdoor recreation programs, Thurston Park, the school forest and the annual China Days celebration.

She proposed the person be paid $21,000, without benefits, for a 20-hour week. Hours would vary with the season, she explained. After debate, board members recommended $11,500 for an average 10-hour week “to see how it works,” as Preston said.

Hapgood also recommended a new full-time employee to be shared between the transfer station and the public works department; he or she would have a Class C driver’s license and be qualified to drive a plow truck, she said.

Thurston Park Committee chairman Jeanette Smith had submitted a budget request for $7,675, intending to add to it $6,000 left from the current year. In the written request, she warned that she might ask for more if unanticipated “significant expenditures” before June 30 used the $6,000.

She told select board members the Dec. 23 rainstorm did major damage to the park’s entrance road, her request for federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds was rejected and she needs the $6,000 – and could use more – for prompt road repairs.

Select board members recommended $13,675 for Thurston Park for FY 2023-24.

China Region Lakes Alliance (CRLA) executive director Scott Pierz explained the different programs and activities that organization and the China Lake Association (CLA) carry out. He mentioned successes, like the courtesy boat inspection program so far keeping invasive plants out of China Lake.

Pierz asked for $58,500 in town funds, partly because Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds have been reduced.

Select board members discussed the monetary value of the lake – Preston and Marquis emphasized its importance in the town’s tax base, Chadwick said China should become more business-friendly to increase taxes.

After Preston’s motion to recommend $45,000 was defeated with only Marquis and Preston voting for it, Casey’s motion to recommend $35,500 was approved 4-1 with Marquis dissenting.

The rest of the proposed budget brought little or no discussion Feb. 27. There will be further deliberations at budget committee meetings, to be scheduled. These meetings will be publicized and are open to the public.

After the budget discussion, Preston raised another topic for the March 6 select board meeting: should China join the Kennebec Valley Council of Government’s program called Community Resilience Partnerships? There is no additional charge over the KVCOG dues already in the proposed budget ($7,213) and the program offers grants, including for heat pumps, she said.

Thomas Rumpf, budget committee chairman and Four Seasons Club president, thanked select board members for participating in what everyone agreed was a successful China Ice Days Feb. 17 through Feb. 19.

After the March 6 special meeting, China select board members have a regular meeting scheduled for Monday evening, March 13.


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