CHINA — A referendum question that would allow Regional School Unit 18 to borrow money to install a wood-fueled boiler for Messalonskee High School and two other schools was approved by selectmen, many of who also voiced support for the plan.

But they and Town Manager Daniel L’Heureux also wondered whether school officials can sell the idea to voters in the next three weeks. The referendum vote is Sept. 6.

The request to borrow almost $3.2 million needs majority approval in the regional unit’s five towns: Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

L’Heureux suggested public informational meetings in all five towns before Sept. 6. RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith had no objection, but no one acted to schedule one in China.

The boiler and pipes connecting its output to the high school, Messalonskee Middle School and Williams Elementary School will cost a total of $3.688 million, according Smith. A $500,000 Maine Forest Service grant will supplement the loan.

Smith’s figures show the loan will be repaid from energy savings. Taxpayers in the five towns would incur no additional costs.

In fact, Smith said he expects substantial cost savings. 

Comparing projected costs of burning wood chips to the alternative of burning oil and replacing antique boilers, Smith’s figures show costs will be reduced by almost $500,000 in the first 15 years, while the loan is being paid off.

Over 30 years, the official life of the wood-fueled boilers, savings should be more than $5 million, he said.

If the new boilers last 40 years, as Messalonskee High School’s oil-fueled boiler has, Smith expects more than $10 million in savings compared to burning oil.

He also told selectmen that wood chips are produced in Maine, so income from buying fuel stays in the state instead of going overseas. And because prices for wood chips are more stable than oil prices, he expects to be able to sign multi-year wood chip contracts, smoothing the annual school budgeting process.

Selectmen said they were concerned about the lack of public awareness of the issue.

Some also wondered whether natural gas would be a better choice.

The state Public Utilities Commission gave preliminary approval to a natural gas line from Richmond to Madison that could serve Oakland, but it still must sign up anchor users who will help pay for it, get permits from state and local authorities and get final PUC approval before it is built.

China’s Sept. 6 voting will be at the Town Office from noon to 8 p.m.

More information on the project is available on the Regional School Unit 18 web site.

In other business Monday evening, selectmen appointed David Simpson a member of the town’s wetland study committee.

They approved two Bring Your Own Bottle events at The Cabins on China Lake, one on Sept. 3 and one on Oct. 8.

L’Heureux said more than 500 individual invitations have been sent out for the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee’s Sept. 1 public hearing on ordinance changes.  The hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at China Middle School.

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