Carol Hickey washes her hands with sanitizer Monday before paying property taxes at Gardiner City Hall.

With five days to go until Pittston’s annual town meeting, officials Monday spent an hour mulling their options for conducting municipal business as the coronavirus pandemic continued to gain steam and prompt postponements and shutdowns.

But there is no provision in state law to cancel annual budget meetings once the warrants are posted, so Pittston officials’ options are limited.

The town’s Board of Selectmen decided to write a message to town residents saying the annual meeting must still be held Saturday at 9:45 a.m. at the Pittston-Randolph Consolidated School, per guidance by the Maine Municipal Association.

“The voters will decide whether to continue with the meeting or recess to a later date,” Pittston selectmen wrote. “This situation could change due to legislative action. Please keep informed. Town officials will post any changes to this procedure as we get them. Election will be held, as posted, on March 23, 12-7 at the Town Office.”

Like city and town officials across central Maine, they are trying to figure out how to meet their obligations when face-to-face interactions are being discouraged to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

State health officials said Monday there were 17 confirmed or likely coronavirus cases in Maine, including people from Cumberland, Androscoggin, Lincoln and Knox counties.

Gov. Janet Mills has recommended that schools cease holding classroom-based instruction as soon as possible (most already have) and advised against public gatherings of 50 or more people.

For local municipalities, the timing of town meeting is not the only concern. Towns with March town meetings that have not yet been held are up against a budget deadline.

Because town meetings do not generally coincide with the start of the fiscal year, residents are routinely asked to authorize spending up to a certain percentage of the municipal budget in anticipation of a budget approval at the next town meeting. But if that next town meeting does not take place or is delayed, there is no authorization to pay bills or employees after that date.

“Our fiscal year starts Feb. 1, and we can spend only so much before the budget is voted on,” said Greg Couture, chairman of the West Gardiner Board of Selectmen.

But that could change. City and town officials said Monday they understood that Mills’ office was putting together emergency legislation for consideration Tuesday by the Legislature before it adjourns. A call to the governor’s office was not immediately returned Monday afternoon.

In the meantime, Pittston officials decided Monday to keep Town Office hours as they are for now.

Other communities are taking different actions. Augusta, Monmouth and Fayette are among the towns that have halted in-person contact with residents, canceled or delayed all meetings, events and activities in public buildings and shut down municipal libraries for at least the next two weeks.

Deborah Gortmans reads a sign on Monday stating that the Monmouth Town Hall is closed to visitors. Town employees may still be reached by phone or email but human interactions are curtailed until March 30, the notice states.

Where possible, people are urged to complete municipal business online.

“We’ve given the Town Office staff two weeks off as a precaution,” Monmouth Town Manager Mark Robinson said.

That leaves him at the office to handle calls and questions, and new vehicle registrations, which cannot be handled online.

“We’re hoping we can get an extension (from the Legislature) on those registrations,” Monmouth Town Manager Linda Cohen said. “It’s no good saying no contact, and then having contact.”

In the advisory Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo distributed Sunday, city staff will be available and actively responding to phone calls and emails during the two-week period City Hall will be closed to the public.

On Monday, Augusta Mayor David Rollins declared the coronavirus pandemic a disaster, retroactive to Sunday. The declaration allows the city manager under the city’s code of ordinances to act on behalf of the city to  suspend the routine hours of operation of city government, activates the response and recovery aspects of the city’s emergency management plan and authorizes furnishing aid and assistance.

Public safety personnel are also affected by public health restrictions.

Robert Devlin, Kennebec County administrator, said among the precautions taken at the county level, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office law enforcement staff, like Augusta and Gardiner police, will respond to calls for service first by telephone, depending on the nature of the call.

“Reducing the risk of exposure to and incidents of COVID-19 in our community is our top priority,” Bridgeo said of the changes.

In addition to the city’s schools, the Buker Community Center, its recreation and child care programs, will all be closed through March 29, as will the Lithgow Public Library.  The Hatch Hill landfill will be closed on Saturday for the rest of the month, and only credit cards will be accepted.

In Hallowell, where all public meetings are canceled until March 31 and public access to the buildings will be restricted only to “those who need to do face-to-face business and make an appointment,” City Manager Nate Rudy said the city will look into the legality of holding online, remote meetings.

The closure of city buildings including the North Bay Recycling Center. Further, the Hallowell Water District office is closed until further notice but will continue to provide water.

Many communities have meetings scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, where precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus are on the agenda.

In Gardiner, where audience chairs were spaced feet apart in the City Council chamber, city officials reviewed policies in place and what options they have in a variety of scenarios, including if its firefighter/paramedics are infected with coronavirus.

“This is an odd time because we are being told not to come together,” Mayor Patricia Hart said. Even so, she added, plans are needed to make sure that people have what they need.

In addition to allowing employees to go home if they don’t feel safe and increasing sanitizing in public areas, Gardiner City Manager Christine Landes requested the elected officials approve allowing her or her designee and Hart to make emergency decisions in addition to approving whether to close the Gardiner Public Library.

Landes and Hart are expected to update the city at 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays via Facebook live. Landes said she has been asked to work from home by her physicians; she is currently being treated for breast cancer. While the City Council is meeting March 25, perhaps by telephone, Landes said nonessential meetings have been canceled.

Farmingdale Town Clerk Rose Webster said the town’s Board of Selectmen will meet Monday night to discuss a potential closure of the Town Office.

Richmond Town Manager Adam Garland said Monday he is suspending all after-hours committee meetings and events for the next two weeks, and the Board of Selectmen were expected to consider changing office hours and limiting in-person interactions over the next two weeks.

Chelsea Town Manager Scott Tilton said Monday the town’s Board of Selectmen will meet Tuesday to discuss changes to Town Office hours or cancellations of upcoming meetings.

In an email, Tilton wrote that the meeting is open to the public but the public is being encouraged to not attend and to live stream the meeting. Chelsea’s Board of Selectmen meetings are streamed at townhallstreams.com/towns/chelseamaine.

Windsor’s Board of Selectmen is also meeting Tuesday. But because Windsor has no live streaming policy, that is not an option for people interested in the discussion.

On Monday, public health officials recommended avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people.

“We have five members on the Board of Selectmen, “Windsor Town Manager Theresa Haskell said. “Then there’s me and the recording secretary, so that’s seven people.”

Windsor has already restricted use of town buildings and canceled non-urgent meetings. While the town’s Board of Selectmen meetings don’t usually attract large audiences, Haskell recommended that people who don’t need to attend stay away.


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