CHINA — Municipal officials released stipend money Monday night for the town’s three volunteer fire departments, ending a monthslong funding standoff that was triggered by disagreements over how to comply with federal labor laws.

China’s four-person Board of Selectmen voted 3-0 to grant the town meeting-approved $30,000 in funding to the China Village, South China and Weeks Mills fire departments.

Selectwoman Donna Mills-Stevens abstained from the vote, saying voting on the issue would conflict with the oath of office she took to uphold state and federal laws.

None of the three fire chiefs — Tim Theriault of China Village, Richard Morse of South China and Bill Van Wickler of Weeks Mills — was present at Monday’s meeting, but representatives from the China Village and South China departments picked up their checks by 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, according to Town Manager Dennis Heath. The Weeks Mills department collected on Wednesday, Heath said.

Select board members also waived a previous requirement that the three chiefs sign a memorandum of understanding before being able to access the funding after the chiefs made it clear in an October Morning Sentinel article they would not sign the document.

Heath said they had already pledged to sign the memorandum at a July meeting, a claim Theriault denied. An email Heath sent to the chiefs and selectmen July 8 noted “a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) (being) completed for signature” was one of the items discussed and agreed upon at that meeting.

China Town Manager Dennis Heath, at his desk at the China town office in August 2018. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

The memorandum of understanding would have formalized the requirement that the fire chiefs outline how they pay out stipend funds to volunteers in order to receive the town-issued funds.

Heath said that without seeing those calculations, he could not verify whether the departments were breaching the Fair Labor Standards Act. The federal law states that volunteer stipends cannot exceed 20% of what a full-time employee would be paid.

He also voiced concern about violating a Maine law that states a municipality cannot allocate funds to a volunteer fire department unless “the purposes for which an appropriation is made to a volunteer fire department are itemized.”

The chiefs since provided the calculation method, which has been approved by the Maine Department of Labor. The U.S. Department of Labor has not yet weighed in on the issue and did not promise that it would, according to Heath.

To reflect ambivalence over the decision, newly appointed Chairman Ron Breton’s motion Monday night to allow the disbursement of the stipends came with “the understanding that the volunteer fire departments are liable for compliance with state and federal law in the disbursement of those funds and must itemize to the town how the funds are paid out.”

China Selectman Ron Breton

“We as the elected officials of the town are responsible and accountable to the taxpayers for all expenditures authorized by the residents,” Breton said, reading from a prepared statement before putting a motion on the table.

“We are required to follow and enforce those laws. This is all the MOU was stating and asking for. We were just reinforcing the legal requirements that even though they do not sign the MOU, those legal requirements are still in place.”

Before this year, the fire chiefs did not specify how they allocated the stipend funds, which led to concerns about whether the leaders had been overpaying their volunteers, threatening the volunteer status of the departments and whether ranking officials “double-dipped” by collecting a flat rate for their leadership as well as a per-call reward. In their quarterly reports, the fire departments have historically itemized how their operational funds are paid out, Breton said.

Van Wickler, chief of the Weeks Mills Fire Department, said he hopes the town can now put the stipend conversation behind it.

“I am glad the funds were released, and as in all cases there are two sides to every story,” Van Wickler wrote in an email Tuesday to the Morning Sentinel. “I feel the adult thing for me personally at this point would be to agree to disagree with how this was presented by the select board chair and hope for better circumstances moving forward.”

Theriault and Morse did not respond to requests for a comment.

In a Nov. 21 email to selectmen, Heath proposed putting the stipend funds in the “Community Support Organizations” part of the municipal budget going forward, rather than under “Fire/Rescue.” That would come, Heath wrote, “with the understanding that they are liable for how it is spent within their organizations; under state law (30-A §5722) they will be required to itemize to the town how that money is spent.”

“It is my hope this will avoid any further turmoil surrounding this issue,” Heath said.

This suggestion was not voiced at the select board meeting Monday. In response to a resident’s question about how the stipends will be categorized in future budgets, Breton said, “We’re not ready to discuss that at this point.

“We would seriously like to sit down and have the fire chiefs come in and we should be able to discuss this openly amongst ourselves and come up with a resolution that doesn’t cause the turmoil that we’ve had in the last eight months,” he said.

The conditions for issuing firefighter stipends have polarized the town, pitting municipal government against the three, long-reigning fire chiefs. Tension between the fire chiefs and the Board of Selectmen was palpable at the annual Town Meeting on April 6, when voters debated and ultimately approved increases in the stipends.

Most recently, Selectman Jeff LaVerdiere cited the issue as cause for his resignation in October, which left the board without a tie-breaking vote.

The board agreed Monday to fill LaVerdiere’s seat during the March 3 presidential primary vote to avoid spending money for a single-race ballot and to give candidates time to acquire the required signatures to run.

Breton said, as part of his prepared statement Monday, that he feels that throughout the clash over stipends, the fire chiefs have attempted to discredit the elected officials and “shame the town into relenting by making it appear we don’t care about the volunteer firefighters.

“It is the volunteer firefighters we are concerned about and we do not want to cause them to suffer because of their leadership’s unwillingness to honor their commitment they made back in July to which they had ample opportunity to assist in formatting the draft MOU,” he said.

The three other selectmen distanced themselves from Breton’s statement and said they backed only his motion.

“It may cost me another election — I don’t know. I don’t care,” Breton said. “I just want to get it done because I’m tired of this town being slammed because of something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

China Rescue has already collected its $10,000 check for stipend funds and was not required to be a part of the memorandum of understanding because the town pays its bills, unlike the fire departments, according to Heath.

Residents first voted to provide China’s emergency service crews with stipends in 2017 in an effort to boost participation as departments across the state struggled to recruit volunteers.

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