Newcastle voters approved a fire protection ordinance and the return to a part-time fire chief with minimal discussion during the annual town meeting on Tuesday, June 21.
Nearly 50 people attended the first open annual town meeting in Newcastle in two years, held at Lincoln Academy’s gymnasium, and made quick work of the 29 warrant articles, which included the municipal budget and allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds, in little over an hour.
The seven-page Taniscot Fire and Emergency Services ordinance was approved by a vote of 33-4. It defines the scope of the fire company and its relationship to the town for the first time in the company’s history.
Newcastle Select Board Chair Joel Lind said the ordinance is the result of a months-long collaboration between town officials and the Taniscot Engine Co. during which everyone involved learned a lot.
“It was a nice, enlightening experience,” Lind said.
The ordinance is written to reflect one of the ways in which fire companies can operate according to state statute, since the town does not have a charter, Lind said.
“It’s a really good ordinance for the town, it’s a really good ordinance for the fire company,” he said.
The Taniscot Engine Co. has operated as an independent nonprofit entity since 1876. The town provides funds for the department and owns the Clayton V. Huntley Jr. station building, which it leases to the company.
The purpose of the ordinance is to establish the scope of Newcastle’s Taniscot Engine Co. to align with state law, establish appointment procedures and powers and duties of the fire chief, define guidelines for the fire company, and “provide maximum possible legal protection” for the firefighters, according to the document.
The ordinance will not change anything functionally about the town’s relationship to Newcastle’s nonprofit Taniscot Engine Co., Town Manager Sarah Macy has said.
Resident Ellen Dickens asked about the line item in the budget that shows a drop in the fire chief’s salary from $ 60,000 last year to $ 12,000 this year, an 80% dip.
Casey Stevens, who has served as interim fire chief since April 2021, said the fire company has agreed with the select board’s recommendation to return to a part-time chief and see how that works with the newly passed fire protection ordinance.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be like this forever, maybe the first couple of years or so,” Stevens said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Stevens became interim fire chief after former Chief Clayton Huntley died. Stevens’ term was originally set to expire on June 30, 2021, but he continued to serve in the position.
Members of the Taniscot Engine Co. elected Stevens as fire chief in July 2021, but the town has not yet confirmed his appointment to the full-time position.
The town has also paid the salary for a full-time fire chief since the budget line was first approved at the annual town meeting in 2009.
Lind addressed the crowd at the start of the meeting, noting it is the first time in two years that Newcastle has been able to gather for an open town meeting.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the town has held an annual town meeting by referendum with fewer warrant articles and more concise questions since 2020.
“It’s good to have everyone back here,” Lind said.
Voters also approved the fiscal year 2022-23 municipal budget, which totals $ 5,312,774.62, up $ 250,156.25 or 4.94%, from last year. Residents approved using electronic keypad voting at the start of the meeting and used those devices throughout.
The public safety category, which includes the fire chief’s salary, totals $ 270,555.26, up $ 24,518.26 or 9.97%. The increase is a result of a hike in Newcastle’s share of the Central Lincoln County Ambulance Service budget, which increased from $ 30,399 last year to $ 82,702.86 this year. This is a $ 52,303.86, or 172.06%, jump from last year and marks the fourth straight year of increases in contributions to the ambulance service.
This spike is due largely to a payroll increase this year for CLC Ambulance emergency medical technicians, advanced emergency medical technicians, and paramedics, Lind said.
The public works budget category totals $ 651,305, up $ 101,209 or 18.40%.
The reserves budget category totals $ 987,280, up $ 187,796 or 23.49%. This is due partly to a jump in the roads capital projects line from $ 686,734 to $ 855,530, and $ 168,796 or 24.58% increase.
The roads capital reserve increase, as well as the increase in public works budget, is due to increase in material and labor costs, said Select Board member Rob Nelson. The budget numbers reflect a continuation of the long-term roads maintenance and repair program started in 2019, designed to “address our roads in a thorough way.”
“It’s taken us a long time for us to get in this place where we’re really trying to take care of our roads and we don’t want to slow down,” Nelson said.
The debt service category stayed flat at $ 270,506.57.
Resident Kevin Verney, who has been critical of the town’s roads program in the past, asked why the weight limit posting on North Newcastle Road was removed, when it can only be removed by the state. He also asked about the load limit on Lynch Road.
Road Commissioner Seth Hagar, of Damariscotta, said he has been in contact with Verney about that issue and other issues Verney has raised in the past.
The weight limit, according to Hagar, was never officially approved by the select board and codified in town ordinance, which is why it was removed.
The town decided to remove the load limit postings “until such time that we have an educated and well-thought-out ordinance that we can enforce and put in front of the townspeople for acceptance,” Hagar said.
Verney said he sought to get his questions answered at the annual town meeting because he doesn’t get answers from the road commissioner.
Voters also gave final approval to the various allocations of $ 186,623.12 in the American Rescue Plan Act federal relief funds in Article 29, the final article.
The select board has allocated the funds as such, in approximate values, and seeks final voter approval for the allocations: $ 7,000 for premium pay for town employees who worked during the COVID-19 pandemic; $ 60,000 for town hall renovations; $ 25,000 for air quality upgrades to the community room at the Clayton V. Huntley Jr. Station; $ 7,000 to the Damariscotta Region Chamber of Commerce for renovations of the Information Bureau in Damariscotta, which will serve as the organization’s new headquarters; $ 25,000 for broadband expansion; $ 25,000 for air quality improvements to town hall; and $ 15,000 to the Central Lincoln County YMCA for services through its community navigator program.
Resident Roger Wilcox made a final comment at the end of the annual town meeting, requesting more transparency and communication from the select board and town office.
“The communication has been less than desirable for me, and I’d like to see that addressed,” Wilcox said.
Newly elected Thomas Kostenbader was sworn in as a select board member by Town Clerk Jodee Kelley after the annual town meeting.