The Class of 2021 from the University of Maine at Farmington march in an academic procession for their graduation ceremony on Saturday, May 8. The procession and speeches were pre-recorded on May 1 in order to comply with COVID-19 CDC guidelines. Photo courtesy of University of Maine at Farmington

January

The Town of Farmington learned that the town would face a $743,000 increase in the annual budget. This was due to the 2019 LEAP explosion that killed Capt. Michael Bell and injured six other firefighters. Former Town Manager Richard Davis told the Select Board that “fully half of that increase is in worker’s comp as a result of the explosion.”

The Farmington Select Board chose to hold its 2021 Town Meeting via referendum, rather than via the historic in-person format. The decision was to mitigate complications from COVID-19 safety guidelines. Those guidelines included a cap of 100 people at any gathering and holding the meeting outside, which would be difficult in March’s colder weather.

Franklin Journal reporter Andrea Swiedom got to the bottom of the Franklin County courthouse clock, which chimes on the hour, every hour of the day. They found that some find it to be a nuisance and others appreciate the nostalgia and Farmington’s individuality. They also got an inside look at the clock’s maintenance and upkeep.

The Mt. Blue school district (RSU 9) faced its first district-wide closure from Jan. 19 to 22 after 34 staff members and 11 students were identified as close contacts to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19. This closure exhibited a stark difference between the guidelines of early 2021 versus present day. Currently, guidelines are such that the school can remain open, though nine individuals at the Mt. Blue campus tested positive for COVID-19 during the week ending Dec. 17 and the overall district has seen a cumulative 285 cases since the start of the 2021-22 school year.

The University of Maine Farmington spent the first three weeks of 2021 sending waste-water samples from the Farmington Sewer Plant for testing to detect traces of the SARS-CoV-2. The samples were tested in a laboratory at UMaine-Orono. The UMaine System Scientific Advisory Board had found that fragments of the virus “often increase in wastewater prior to evident COVID-19 symptoms within a community.”

February

The Franklin County jail returned to normal operations and full capacity Wednesday, Feb. 3 following a COVID-19 outbreak where 10 staff members and two inmates were infected. The outbreak forced the jail to close to all except those considered public safety risks. The shutdown lasted for over two weeks.

Kenneth Charles was named the new police chief in Farmington Feb. 9. A committee ran the hiring process and hiring Charles was approved by the Select Board. Charles was previously with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office for 18 years, most recently as a detective.

The RSU 9 Board of Directors and the Mt. Blue Education Association chose Feb. 10 to move forward with a collaborative approach for teacher-contract negotiations. The “solutions-based approach” followed what had been contentious negotiations over disagreements on proposed salary increases and conflict with former Superintendent Tina Meserve.

In mid-February, Franklin County saw a decline in reported positive cases of COVID-19 — a 38.71% drop in confirmed cases. The decline followed outbreaks across the county and in institutions like the Orchard Park Rehabilitation and Living Center.

Nowadays, the pandemic is intensifying and reaching new heights in Franklin County. Sun Journal’s Emily Bader reports that “Franklin County had its worst month in November, when it recorded more than a quarter of all its deaths since the start of the pandemic. More so, Bader reports Franklin County is now first in the state for people per capita COVID-19 deaths and second in the state for the highest number of new cases per capita at 202 new cases per 10,000 residents. And only halfway through December, case rates were already two-thirds of those in all of November. Surely a stark difference from February 2020.

Richard Davis announced Feb. 23 he would be stepping down as the Farmington Town Manager in late August. Davis chose to step down on the 20th anniversary of his time as town manager. Davis told the Select Board “I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s time.”

The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, led by Director Bonita Lehigh, was awarded $20,000 from United Way to fund a tiny-house initiative to combat youth homelessness. The initiative, called “Making Home Possible,” will build tiny homes to provide homeless and housing-insecure youth with affordable, comfortable housing. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal file photo

March

The Livermore Falls Advertiser’s Pam Harnden dug into exactly where the tradition of holding Town Meetings in March originated. She found that the scheduling was chosen to ensure that decisions were made and government business taken care of before planting season began in Maine.

The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, a nonprofit in downtown Farmington, was awarded $20,o00 from United Way to build mobile tiny houses for housing-insecure youth. Director Bonita Lehigh opened the CES in 2020 to empower housing-insecure youth and other marginalized populations with entrepreneurial skills and offer support. The CES has become a space for housing-insecure youth to find support and a sense of safety.

The Farmington Walmart was evacuated March 8 after police received a false bomb threat. “No suspicious items were located,” Police Chief Charles wrote in a statement. State law enforcement, the Farmington Police Department, Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, Farmington Fire Department and NorthStar Ambulance were all at the scene.

Donald White, 44, of Jay, held four people hostage in Livermore Falls March 8. White broke into the house of his ex-girlfriend, Amie Smith, with a gun and explosives. White died at the scene. An autopsy determined he died from a self-inflicted gun shot to the head following an 18-hour police standoff.

Voters took to the polls in New Sharon for a referendum that replaced the in-person Town Meeting. Residents overwhelmingly voted to lower this year’s tax commitment. Chesterville residents, at an in-person meeting, authorized selectpersons to research the feasibility of having a town manager. They also nixed an article that would have called upon elected officials to enact carbon-pricing legislation.

The Franklin County Courthouse reopened to the public March 29 following on-and-off closures to adhere to COVID-19 protocols. The building had been closed to the public since mid-November. It was first closed to the public in mid-March 2020 because of the pandemic and reopened June 2020.

Donald White, 44, of Jay held three people hostage Monday, March 8, in Livermore Falls and died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, according to an autopsy report. Pictured is a member of the Maine State Police Tactical Team walking up Knapp Street in Livermore Falls during a standoff with White. Donna Perry/Sun Journal file photo

April

The Wilton Select Board approved plans to replace the Wilson Lake retaining wall April 9. The reconstruction includes updates to walkways and the parking lot to improve the waterfront for pedestrians. The town has since received an estimate of $760,620 with a 20% contingency from Sevee & Maher Engineers. Wilton residents voted to fund the reconstruction at the June Town Meeting.  Town Manager Rhonda Irish also planned to apply for infrastructure funding grants to offset some of the costs.

Liquid Sunshine closed up shop in early April after nearly 30 years in downtown Farmington at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway. Owner Sue Gordon said the store — which sold crystals, incense, clothing and gifts — isn’t gone “forever,” but “simply ‘for now.'”

Public comment began April 13 for the referendum ballot question to ban the New England Clean Energy Connect high-transmission-line corridor (also known as the NECEC/CMP corridor).

The corridor would run through Wilton and Farmington. Locals, including Wilton Selectperson Tom Saviello and Franklin County activists, environmentalists with No CMP and local politicians, were outspoken opponents of the corridor. All of this landed Farmington and Franklin County in the center of the fight. Maine voters would come to approve the referendum question — which bans the corridor — in the Nov. 2 election. However, it’s not yet been put to a permanent stop.

Chesterville’s Sandy River Road project was completed mid April. The culvert replacement project was conducted to prevent erosion threats to Parker Pond’s water quality. As a result, it will now improve the pond’s water quality, habitat for fish, public safety, and road paving. The project, which cost $320,276, is now considered the biggest of its kind in Maine.

Blue Crew, a robotics team at Foster Career and Technical Education Center, came in second in their group at an international competition called the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition. In one of the challenges, Blue Crew was the only team among 29 in their group to score a perfect 150.

May

Local livestock and hay farmers told the Franklin Journal that their work grew more challenging amid a three-week long drought categorized as “abnormally dry conditions.” That current drought followed one the previous fall that farmers said was “severe” with ongoing impacts. The dry conditions particularly impacted hay crops, which affected the farmers who grew and sold it and those that feed it to their livestock year round.

Farmington Fire Rescue recognized Deputy Chief S. Clyde Ross and firefighter Junior Turner Tuesday, May 4, for their combined 100 years of dedication to the department. Ross and Turner both started on May 3, 1971, exactly 50 years ago.

The University of Maine at Farmington celebrated its 2021 graduating class with a virtual ceremony May 8. The ceremony was held virtually to follow COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, which were lifted in Maine during the summer. The “unconventional” commencement ceremony was entirely pre-recorded the previous week, including the procession, speeches and sequence of the 186 graduating students receiving their diplomas.

The Mt. Blue School District (RSU 9) announced it had hired Christian Elkington as the new superintendent May 11. Elkington, who started his tenure July 1, told the Franklin Journal re-engaging students amid the pandemic and supporting staff would be his top priorities. Overall, he wanted to return the district to a state of “normalcy.” Elkington replaced interim Superintendent Monique Poulin, the high school principal, and her predecessor, Tina Meserve, who resigned in December 2020.

The Farmington Select Board declared May 16-22 Arbor Week in Farmington to honor 50 years of the Farmington Conservation Commission. Farmington is in its 44th year of being named a Tree City USA Town by the Arbor Day Foundation. The town is one of just two in Maine to have that many years under their belt.

Farmington voters, at a special town meeting May 25, approved four amendments to town ordinances. The Adult Use and Medical Marijuana, Public Wellhead Protection and Zoning Ordinances were all amended.

Mt. Blue graduated 142 students from the Class of 2021 on June 13. Students sat together on Caldwell Field with an audience filled with family members, teachers and administrators — a stark contrast to last year’s pandemic-amended “drive-up” ceremony. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal file photo

June

Wilton Selectperson decided June 1 to hold the annual Wilton Blueberry Festival after it was canceled by festival directors mid-May due to concerns over COVID-19 safety guidelines. When it was initially canceled, Shannon Smith announced she was stepping down as chair after 30 years.  An amended, last-minute version of the blueberry festival was then held in August, the first since the pandemic started in March 2020.

Franklin County Commissioners voted unanimously June 7 to hire a human resources consultant to conduct an internal investigation of the county’s government. As of Sept. 21, it had cost the county government $10,200 to conduct the internal investigation. It is still unclear why the consultant was hired or what investigation is underway.

RSU 9 had a busy month. On June 8, the Board of Directors unanimously approved the 2020-23 contracts for professional staff. The approval followed prolonged, often contentious negotiations that began in January 2020. Over the course of negotiations, professional staff (such as teachers, nurses, librarians and social workers) were working without contracts, which expired in August 2020. Mt. Blue Education Association President Doug Hodum said the contracts offered “very competitive wages” and “landed in a really good place for the district as a whole and for the professional staff.” Former Board Chairperson Angela LeClair said the district was “long overdue on raising salaries to show that we respect our special staff.”

Over a week later, Mt. Blue High School graduated 142 students in the district’s first-in person ceremony since the pandemic began. It was also the first Mt. Blue graduation held outside, on Caldwell Field, in nearly 20 years. Interim Principal Joel Smith advised graduates of the Class of 2021 to “make your bed,” “be kind,” “be grateful” and “believe in yourself.”

Voters across RSU 9’s ten towns approved the district’s 2021-2022 budget set at $38.9 million for kindergarten through 12th grade with an additional $477,406 for adult education June 8. The school budget cost taxpayers across the county $13.7 million, a $397,300 (2.99%) increase from the 2020-21 budget.

Voters in Wilton approved all articles at the June 14 Town Meeting. A total of 136 residents attended the meeting at Kineowatha Park, which Moderator Ron Aseltine said was likely the “largest crowd we’ve had in a few years.”

Amendments to the zoning ordinance regarding marinas and shoreland zoning guidelines were approved by voters after considerable discussion. The amendments directly impacted an application for a (hotly-debated) marina on Wilson Lake. A lawsuit has since been filed on behalf of the Marina owners, alongside denials of an application and subsequent appeal-of-decision by the Planning and Appeals Boards.

Following approval of the zoning ordinance amendments, the remaining articles were approved in one go due to the threat of rain, which became a downpour just minutes after the meeting came to a close. Those articles included the town’s $3.79 million town budget recommended by the Select Board. The budget included contributions toward regional nonprofits who asked for support after the Franklin County Commissioners cut funding for nonprofits from the county budget.

The Farmington Police Department had been battling staffing shortages, Chief Kenneth Charles told selectpersons June 22. At the time, there were five positions open in the department. Charles shared that law enforcement agencies across Maine have been battling similar shortages. “We’re deeply concerned at this point,” Charles told the board. The department has since hired two new officers.

Voters learned in late June they’d be asked on the Nov. 2 election ballot to increase the number of districts and commissioners in Franklin County from three to five. The referendum question came about after LD 621, which requires commissioners to put the question before voters, was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills in early June.

At the time, Rep. H. Scott Landry (D-Farmington) said he supported the referendum question because it would give more say to the towns of Carrabassett Valley and Rangeley where over half of county tax assessment is represented. Voters approved the referendum question in November.