Tension between China’s three village fire chiefs and the Board of Selectmen was palpable Saturday at Town Meeting as voters debated pay increases for both groups.
In the end, both sides prevailed with increases in annual stipends, but the line was drawn on who is in charge of what.
“We are not a municipal fire department. We’d like to be left alone,” China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault said. “We’re an independent entity, not controlled by the town.”
China selectmen have been “a little intrusive” and “it’s unfortunate that we don’t agree,” Theriault said, adding that he personally has been offended. He said firefighters didn’t need help deciding how to calculate the stipends or how to distribute the funding.
The two groups have had an ongoing public disagreement about the way municipal stipends are intended to be distributed among firefighters, an issue joined by a proposal for raises for selectmen.
The fire chiefs from China’s three villages have voiced concern over the selectmen’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 the Budget Committee backed, the selectmen recommended $22,700. The decision was intended to prevent chiefs and ranking officers from “double dipping” into municipal funds.
On the Town Meeting warrant Saturday, selectmen recommended a straight sum of $171,199 for fire and rescue services, while the town Budget Committee recommended $181,499 for the services.
Voters one-upped the disagreement by adding $7,000 to the Budget Committee’s recommendation, bringing it up to $188,499.
That final figure was approved in a wave of blue “yes” cards, almost unanimously.
Selectman Ron Breton defended the board Saturday, saying members have been supportive of the town and the fire departments and act in the best interests of China residents.
“We have been hammered pretty hard,” he said.
Selectwoman Donna Mills-Stevens agreed, adding that the news media have added unwanted attention to the subject.
“We do support the fire departments,” she said.
On the question of raises for members of the Board of Selectmen, debate was equally passionate over the question of increasing the annual stipend for each selectman from $1,000 to $1,800. Selectmen supported the article, while the Budget Committee recommended a “no” vote.
Town Manager Dennis Heath told Town Meeting participants that he had 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.
Heath said the stipend has been the same for a dozen years.
Voters overwhelmingly agreed to adopt the article as written, increasing the stipend to $1,800 a year. In a show-of-hands vote, the tally was 64 to raise the pay and 44 not to.
The added money to the annual budget brought the total China municipal spending package to $3,590,385, according to Heath. The current tax rate going into Town Meeting was $15.80 for every $1,000 in property valuation. The new tax rate won’t be determined until school spending and the county tax are calculated, Heath said.
Articles with the greatest sum of money approved by voters Saturday included $473,000 for town administration and $213,126 for other administration costs. Also approved was $1,196,746, funding for public works, $498,705 for the transfer station, $115,965.75 for assessing, and $91,498 for police and animal control.
Voters debated the relative value of FirstPark, but in the end they overwhelmingly approved $38,169 for the town’s contribution to the Oakland business park.
The town also voted to distribute $457,082.73 of tax-increment financing money to projects that include the China Lake Association’s LakeSmart program, the Thurston Park Committee, the China Four Seasons Club and the China Region Lakes Alliance with $202,582.73 of the 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.