Selectmen unanimously approve fire departments stipend plan; to submit to state for review

by Mary Grow

China selectmen hope they settled three issues, at least temporarily, at their July 8 meeting, while kicking a fourth question down the road for the third time.

The dispute with the town’s three volunteer fire departments over payment of stipends has been going on since the fall of 2018. After a discussion in executive session, Town Manager Dennis Heath summarized a path forward that board members unanimously approved.

The question of removing sections of the guardrails at the head of China Lake before they get in the way during the annual China Days fishing derby was a new item that Heath thinks can be taken care of in time. The executive session was followed by a second decision, on town office hours.

And selectmen for the third time declined to commit to buying a grader for the town’s public works department, planning to revisit the question with additional information at their July 22 meeting.

The issue with the volunteer firefighters is how to give them token compensation for their efforts without making them town employees under state or federal law. Voters approved money for stipends at the April 6 town business meeting.

The decision approved unanimously at the July 8 meeting was that the stipend-payment formula developed by the firefighters will be sent to the state labor board for review. If the labor board approves it, departments and town representatives will incorporate it in a new memorandum of understanding on disbursement policy, after which payments will begin.

The guardrails were installed as part of Phase I of the causeway project, running across the new bridge that was the focus of that phase and eastward along the shore. The Tax Increment Financing Committee discussed the guardrails the previous week, found them ugly and unsafe (although they are intended as a safety measure) and recommended selectmen see to changing them. Heath agreed July 8, describing them as “overkill” and “designed for an interstate.” The manager expects project contractor Comprehensive Land Technologies can remove the sections that block access to fishing areas before China Days, scheduled for Aug. 2 through 4. Heath had no cost estimate during the selectboard meeting, but emailed shortly afterward that CLT planned to charge $4,000 a day. The manager thought the work might take only one day.

If Phase I funds cannot cover the partial removal, the TIF Committee is ready to begin Phase II and can use that money, Heath said. Later in Phase II, he said, more attractive guardrails might replace the present ones.

[See also: Guardrail topic generates heated discussion; Cotta resigns from TIF committee]

The third decision, again after a discussion in closed session, was to change China town office hours effective Nov. 1. As of that date, the town office will no longer be open for three hours Saturday mornings; instead, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it will remain open an hour and a half later than it does now, until 5:30 p.m. In the only split decision of the evening, selectmen authorized the change on a 3-2 vote, with Chairman Robert MacFarland, Irene Belanger and Ronald Breton in favor and Jeffrey LaVerdiere and Donna Mills-Stevens opposed.

Yet another action after the executive session was board members’ report that they had conducted Heath’s annual review and found his job performance satisfactory (or, as Belanger put it, “He’s a keeper.”)

Selectmen have debated whether to buy an excavator since Public Works Manager Shawn Reed recommended that they do so, and at a subsequent meeting recommended a specific machine. In the interim, selectmen signed a contract with local contractor Wayne Chadwick to use his excavator this fiscal year.

Selectboard members argued again about Reed’s claim that buying would save money compared to contracting or renting. They discussed when Chadwick planned to work, and how long the price quote Reed had would be held. Deciding they needed more information on the last issue, they postponed a decision.

In other business at an unusually varied meeting:

  • Town Clerk Becky Hapgood announced that nomination papers for local elective offices will be available July 11; signed papers are due at the town office by closing time Sept. 6 for names to appear on the Nov. 5 ballot. People whose terms end this year are Selectmen Belanger and MacFarland; Planning Board members Kevin Michaud (District One) and Ralph Howe (District Three, appointed in June to fill out an unexpired term); and Budget Committee members Robert Batteese (chairman), Kevin Maroon (District One) and Wayne Chadwick (District Three). In addition, the planning board alternate at-large seat, currently vacant, is due to be filled this year.
  • Board members unanimously renewed Craig and Richard Taylor’s license for Wildwood pawn shop outside China Village.
  • Hapgood said town office staff started the new fiscal year with a new budget format and new accounts to which they are still getting accustomed. Heath also introduced a new payroll processing system; asked if it is working well, Hapgood said it “still has kinks.” Policeman Tracy Frost agreed: he and his colleagues could not get it to accept their payrolls for the previous two weeks, he said.
  • The usually-routine job of approving items presented for payment took almost half an hour, mainly because Breton questioned Courtesy Boat Inspectors’ supervisor Mallory Chamberlain’s mileage claims and, briefly, why she put in for a salary in addition. China Region Lakes Alliance President Scott Pierz explained why Chamberlain drives several hundred miles a week on the job, and Hapgood pointed out that the packet of supporting documents included Chamberlain’s mileage report in standard town format.

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