CHINA — Tensions between the China Select Board and the volunteer fire chiefs who serve the town could come to the fore on Saturday, as residents weigh in on budget allocations for the upcoming year. The two groups have had an ongoing public disagreement about the way municipal stipends are intended to be distributed among firefighters, elevated by a coinciding proposal for raises for selectmen.

The Town Business Meeting will take place on Saturday at 9 a.m. at China Middle School. Municipal elections are not held until November. The combined municipal and TIF budget is proposed at roughly $3.5 million, with the budget committee recommending $3,566,860.48 and the Select Board recommending slightly less at $3,556,560.48. Both suggestions are down from last year’s figure of $3,801,718.43. These totals do not take into account allotments from the county or state-issued education funding, which have not been determined yet and were excluded from last year’s budget figure for comparison.

 

FIRE DEPARTMENTS

The chiefs of China’s three volunteer fire departments voiced concern over the Select Board’s recommendation to reduce their stipend allotment this year, based on flat rates for each member and no participation-based rewards. While the chiefs requested $33,000 for stipends, which was backed by the Budget Committee, the Select Board recommended $22,700. The decision was intended to prevent chiefs and ranking officers from “double dipping” into municipal funds, according to Selectman Ron Breton.

Controversy over firefighters’ stipends is expected to draw a number of people to China’s annual Town Meeting, packing the China Middle School as it was at Town Meeting in 2018. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Select Board and the fire chiefs have different interpretations of a 2017 memorandum of understanding that defined how the stipends should be allocated when they were first created. The chiefs, who received a flat rate, expressed that they thought they could also receive money for the calls they respond to. Breton said he and members of the current board interpreted the per-call allocation to be distributed to the members who did not have specific rates outlined in the memorandum of understanding.

“The stipends were originally developed under a different select board,” said Tim Theriault, chief of China Village Fire Department. “The (current board wasn’t) there when we made the agreements about how we’ve been paying out the stipends, so there’s been a lot of misinformation.”

The “original intent,” according to Theriault, was for all officers with an established flat rate to also be given allocations based on participation, along with the other members.

He said that the China Village and South China departments get a check for the entire fiscal year’s budget on July 1 and that “what we need to be accountable for is the amount of money” rather than how it is distributed, beyond the categorized reports they submit to the town, which do not indicate how much money each firefighter receives. The Weeks Mills department voted within the past week to also get a lump sum check for the entire year rather than multiple distributions.

This was how it was discussed, this was agreed,” said Theriault. “I see the gray area, but when the players keep changing on one side and all of the others on the other side haven’t changed — we don’t lie, these were the words that were said, the agreement that was made, we’re not making it up. It’s been frustrating. It’s (shown) distrust. Now you’re calling me a liar, and I don’t really appreciate that. They’re not saying those words, but that’s what it means.”

Breton said that “having set numbers for each person allows us to manage the town’s money better,” and that members of the select board do not pay themselves for each meeting they attend outside of the Select Board meetings they are required to attend, a hypothetical he compared to what the fire chiefs do.

While Theriault said that he “believes it’s fixable” and that the chiefs and the board are attempting to solve the issue together, “the Town Meeting could be a disaster, it really could.” Theriault noted that at a previous meeting, members of the public “really got upset” over the issue, which concerned him. 

“It was awful,” he commented. “I don’t want that mob mentality taking over. That doesn’t fix things.”

A letter co-signed by Theriault, Richard Morse, chief of South China Volunteer Fire Department and William Van Wickler, chief of Weeks Mills Volunteer Fire Department on March 13 pointed out that this year, the select board also proposed an $800 raise per selectman.

“That (comparison) really insulted me,” Breton said, later adding that the “two are separate” and the “timing was bad.” Town Manager Dennis Heath studied the compensation of selectmen in “municipalities of similar size”and found the average pay to be $1,920 per selectman. Prior to this year’s proposed increase, the allocation in China was $1,000 per official.

 

OTHER BUSINESS

Heath has compiled the town report differently than in years past in an effort to be more transparent about costs. Each department’s lump sum that is proposed in an article on the town warrant is broken down in detail in a budget document included in the report for the first time in several years.

“It’s going to give people a better picture of what the true expenses are for the rest of the departments,” said Town Clerk Becky Hapgood.

She added that the pay and benefits for each municipal employee are included in their respective department’s warrant article.

“Our residents will take a little bit to get used to that — (Heath) has combined a lot of articles,” Hapgood noted. “If somebody (formerly) worked at the transfer station or public works, their wages would come out of those articles, but their FICA, health insurance and workers compensation insurance would come out of the insurance line item or the administrative line item, instead of where the expense was. Now it’s set up that if someone works at the transfer station — you would find that (the transfer station article) reflects all of the employees in there and their associated insurance costs … to better reflect the cost of doing business.”

As a result, the articles with the greatest sum of money being requested include Public Works, with a recommended $1,196,746 reflecting the cost of a a full-time hire to replace the winter snow plowing contractor and “enable the department to establish a comprehensive preventative maintenance program (PMP) and perform light maintenance currently sent out to various shops,” according to the town report. The Select Board and Budget committees are also recommending $498,705 for the Transfer Station, $115,965.75 for assessing,  $71,199 for fire and rescue services and $91,498 for police and animal control.

The town seeks approval of voters to distribute $457,082.73 of TIF funds to projects that include the China Lake Association’s LakeSmart program as well as the Thurston Park Committee, the China Four Seasons Club and the China Region Lakes Alliance with $202,582.73 of this money leftover from the $750,000 allocated by voters in 2017 for Causeway Road improvements and to be used to implement the project’s second phase.

Voters struck down a proposal to eliminate the quorum for Town Meeting on Election Day in Nov. 2018. Hapgood said that 119 individuals — 4 percent of the municipality’s registered voters as of Jan. 1, 2019 — will have to show up in order for the meeting to start. Because of the conversations due to surface around the fire department, Hapgood said she is not as concerned as she has been in the past about making quorum on Saturday.

“If the weather’s good, people don’t show up or if the weather’s bad people don’t show up,” she said. “It’s hard because you don’t know what draws people away from meetings or to meetings. Thankfully there are things that will draw people to the meeting this year.”

Richard Thompson, who has moderated the meetings for the past decade, according to Hapgood, has expressed interest in reprising the role on Saturday. There will be coffee and snacks provided.

Residents will cast ballots in June on an additional warrant for two proposals that Selectmen unanimously approved to put on a written ballot at a meeting on Monday night. The first asks townspeople to authorize the Board to purchase a lot north of the Four Seasons Club for up to $150,000, with $125,000 coming from the lake access reserve fund and $25,000 from TIF. The acquisition would allow the town to provide public access to China Lake.

The second article requests authorization for the selectmen to spend up to $25,000 for an engineer to draft plans for an emergency services building. The money would come from the town’s undesignated funds. Residents approved spending $5,000 on exploring the development of the the town-owned property at 571 Lakeview Drive. The referendum noted the “possibility of including a concept for a consolidated Emergency Services building for fire (China Village), rescue, police and ambulance (Delta); and with the possibility of including a concept for a Community Center building.”

Heath said a rendering will be available for townspeople to view at the meeting on Saturday.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.