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Selectmen pledge support to milfoil committee

December 09, 2009
ALTON — Selectmen joined local business owners and residents of the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center Monday night in pledging financial support for the milfoil committee's efforts to rid Alton of the invasive aquatic plant.

Presenting the committee's findings and treatment proposal to the selectmen, committee Chairman Jonathan Downing recalled seeing milfoil make its first appearance in Alton's waterways in the 1960s, and said he had seen the town try every method of control imaginable over the years, from pulling plants by hand to cutting them at the root.

The town's milfoil committee, he said, was created in May of 2008 with a three-part mission: Identify the problem; formulate a plan and budget to provide long-term control for the problem; and make recommendations to the selectmen for the purpose of carrying out the plan.

After surveying Alton's 19.3 miles of inland waterways (which constitute roughly 22 percent of the town), Downing explained, the committee identified a total of 33 acres of variable milfoil.

With the aid of a PowerPoint slideshow depicting maps of the affected areas, Downing explained that the committee found 4.5 acres of milfoil in and around the southern tip of the bay, between the Alton Bay bandstand and the Route 11 bridge.

Another 16.5 acres was discovered along the Merrymeeting River, from the Route 11 bridge to the dam; an additional 3.7 acres in the back bay area, near Rand Cove; 12.5 acres in Minge Cove (which was treated with private funds earlier this year); and 8.3 acres near Smalls Cove and the West Alton Marina.

The infestation, Downing said, affects a total of 106 waterfront property owners (including condominiums, restaurants, and other businesses); five marinas and public boat launches; 171 back lot owners who have access to the lake; and 733 boat slips.

Milfoil, he said, is a problem that "does not go away," and requires constant monitoring and treatment.

"I can't over-emphasize the emergency," he added, noting that committee members hauled milfoil out of the Downings Landing area this past summer by the 55-gallon bucketful.

If left untreated, he explained, the infestation will continue to grow, discouraging tourism by making local waterways unattractive to boaters, canoeists, and kayakers and de-valuing shorefront properties, resulting in a shifting of the tax burden onto the shoulders of inland property owners.

Unchecked milfoil growth near the town beach, he said, would also increase the risk of drownings in that area.

Explaining that the committee had adopted the stance that "if we're going to do [a treatment], we're going to do it right," Downing presented the selectmen with a proposal to hit all 33 acres of milfoil with a single dose of herbicide next year, and follow the initial treatment up with a re-treatment a few weeks later.

Breaking down the cost of a herbicide treatment, Downing explained that the town would need to raise $1,887.90 to treat the southern tip of the bay; $5,009.90 to treat the Merrymeeting River; $1,693.30 to treat the Rand Cove area; and $2,863.70 to treat the Small's Cove area — a grand total of $16,363, 30 percent (or $4,909) of which the state Department of Environmental Services has promised to match with a grant.

In view of the fact that town officials will have to sign an agreement with the DES no later than Dec. 23 in order to receive the matching funds, Downing said he and his wife, Nancy (also a member of the committee), had pledged $1,000 toward the cost of treating the southern part of the bay, where the infestation is threatening their business, Downing's Landing.

The committee, he added, also asked the owners of marinas affected by the milfoil infestation whether they would be willing to donate.

Brian Fortier, owner of the West Alton Marina, said from the audience that he would absorb the $2,863.70 cost of treating the Small's Cove area.

A representative from the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center said the organization would be willing to cover the $1,693 cost of treating the Rand Cove area.

Pointing out that the portion of the treatment left un-funded was the Merrymeeting River, Downing asked whether any audience members would be willing to donate toward the remaining $5,009.90, but received no response.

Asked what the impact of not treating the river would be, Downing replied that ignoring the river would essentially make the remaining treatments a waste of money.

"The river's the source," he said, explaining that its contents feed into the lake.

If push came to shove, he added, the selectmen should be able to dip into the town's undesignated fund balance for the $5,009.90 needed to treat the river.

Confirming with Downing that the money the committee was requesting was for next year's treatment only, Selectman Loring Carr asked whether the board should consider placing an article on the 2010 town Warrant seeking funds for treatment in 2011.

Downing felt that a Warrant article would be prudent.

Explaining that the DES had lowered its matching grants from 50 percent to 30 percent this year in order to make funding available to more communities, Selectman Peter Bolster (who also serves as a state representative) said there should be more money available next year due to an increase in the milfoil surcharge on boat registrations.

Fortier suggested that the selectmen look into the possibility of funneling boat registration revenue from the town's general fund into milfoil treatment.

Bolster agreed, urging local boat owners to register directly with the town, and not with the state, thereby ensuring that the revenue stays in Alton.

Downing noted that a coalition of milfoil committees throughout the state, including Alton's, recently pledged its support for a proposed bill that would add a fee of $10 per propeller to boat registrations in support of milfoil treatment programs.

On a motion from Carr, the board voted unanimously to find some way to raise the $5,009.90 needed to treat the river next year.

Trustees fire back at budget committee

Shirley Lane, Chair of Alton's cemetery trustees, appeared before the board Monday night to refute disparaging comments she claimed some budget committee members had made during their Nov. 3 meeting about the town's full-time cemetery caretaker.

Disputing the budget committee's alleged claim that the caretaker has little to do during the winter, and should therefore be reduced to part-time status, Lane spent nearly 30 minutes listing the caretaker's wintertime duties, which she said range from snow removal to equipment maintenance to searching through archives in response to requests from residents or phone calls from family members engaged in genealogy projects.

Calling the statements allegedly made by the budget committee "ridiculous," Lane questioned why (as she understood it) the committee had voted to cut the caretaker's hours back after the cemetery trustees had left the Nov. 3 meeting, and were not able to contribute to the discussion.

Explaining that the caretaker's salary and all of the cemetery department's equipment is paid for through trust funds, and not through property taxes, Lane asked for the selectmen's help in reversing the budget committee's cuts.

Carr, who serves as the selectmen's representative to the budget committee, explained that the committee had discussed the idea of cutting the caretaker's hours only as a way to make the trust funds last longer, and not as a punishment for poor job performance.

Carr also asked Lane to confirm whether or not the cemetery trustees had voted to offer the caretaker a five-year contract after the Nov. 3 meeting.

Lane said the trustees had drafted the contract after seeing LRPA-TV's broadcast of the Nov. 3 meeting as a "vote of confidence" in the caretaker, who they felt had taken an unfair beating at the hands of the budget committee.

Commenting that "times are hard," and that the budget committee felt it might be time for the trustees to tighten their belts, given the recent drop in their revenues, Carr said the contract had "upset a lot of people" who felt that the trustees had circumvented proper procedure by drafting it without consulting town officials or running it by the town attorney.

The budget committee, he added, had not yet voted on the proposal to cut the caretaker's hours.

Lane said she was "upset" when she saw footage from the Nov. 3 meeting on LRPA-TV, and was under the impression that the budget committee had voted that evening to cut the caretaker's hours back.

"We try to be as frugal as we can," she said, noting that every other town department has full-time employees, and that she felt the cemetery department deserved the same consideration.

Without a full-time caretaker in place to hold the town's cemetery maintenance program together, she added, the grounds of the Old and New Riverside cemeteries will "go down in flames."

Stating his belief that the caretaker has done a commendable job maintaining the cemetery grounds, and that neither the budget committee nor the board of selectmen meant to criticize his performance, Selectman Dave Hussey said the issue, from his perspective, was the trustees' decision to offer the caretaker a five-year contract without running the idea past either the selectmen or the town attorney.

Bolster agreed, describing the issue at hand as a "procedural question."

Assuring Lane that the budget committee's discussion was not intended as an attack, Bolster suggested that the trustees should, at the very least, have contacted the town attorney before drafting the contract.

Explaining that the budget committee had planned to recommend that the caretaker's hours be cut, and present that recommendation to voters, Carr said the contract had "short-circuited" the democratic process by taking the decision out of the public's hands.

Hussey added that the problem, in his eyes, was the decision of the trustees to "arbitrarily" overstep what he felt were the limits of their authority.

Carr said he would talk to the budget committee, and try to arrange an opportunity for Lane and the other trustees to respond to what was said during the Nov. 3 meeting.

Budget committee member Virgil MacDonald approached the board during Monday night's first public input session (which was opened after Lane left) and said that he felt the trustees had an opportunity to stay for the full meeting on Nov. 3, but chose to walk out after presenting their budget.

Objecting to the idea of the trustees coming forward within the next few years to ask for money from the town when they recently spent $43,000 on an excavator that he felt they didn't need, MacDonald stood by his argument that year-round maintenance is not necessary at the cemeteries, and suggested that control of the trust funds be placed in the selectmen's hands.

"I agree that the excavator wasn't warranted," Hussey commented, suggesting that the cemetery trustees could have asked to use either the highway department's or water department's excavators on an as-needed basis.

Resident Doug Kirkpatrick also felt the excavator purchased by the cemetery trustees wasn't necessary, given the fact that the water department owns one exactly the same size.

Comparing the trustees' behavior to what he claimed the school board did by dropping the price tag for the Prospect Mountain High School bond by $4 million in order to get the project passed, then coming back to voters and claiming that another $4 million was needed to equip the school, Kirkpatrick echoed MacDonald's objections to the trustees claiming that they needed help from the town after spending money on the excavator and the caretaker's contract unnecessarily.

Who, he asked, is in charge of managing the town's trust funds?

Bolster said that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Trustees of Trust Funds.

Questioning Lane's statements that some of the cemetery department's trust funds were earning just over one percent interest, Kirkpatrick suggested that even in the midst of a recession, the Trustees of Trust Funds should have been able to find higher-yield accounts.

Agreeing with Kirkpatrick's concerns, Hussey said the problem is that "there's no checks and balances" on trustees under state law.

"The contract shouldn't have been written the excavator shouldn't have been bought," he added.

Speculating on what "can of worms" the cemetery caretaker's new contract might open up, Kirkpatrick asked whether the town's other boards of trustees (such as those for the library or water department) would be able to draft similar documents without consulting the selectmen or the town attorney.

"We've got to do something about this," he said.

Concerned that the board might place itself at risk legally if the discussion went any further, Bolster assured Kirkpatrick that the selectmen recognized the problem, and were trying to go "through the channels" to see what could be done about it.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board voted 3-1, with Hussey dissenting, to purchase a new digital mini-camera with tripod and DVD recorder for the Heidtke conference room at Town Hall at a cost not to exceed $725.

The board also voted 3-1, with Bolster dissenting, to reverse an earlier decision to place an article on next year's Warrant requesting $25,000 for the capital reserve fund for senior center improvements.

Instead, only $15,000 would be placed in the senior center fund, with the remaining $10,000 requested for the capital reserve fund set aside for fire department roof repairs in order to satisfy Fire Chief Scott Williams' request that $5,000 be added back into his building maintenance budget without increasing the bottom line of the 2010 operating budget.

The board also voted to schedule the 2010 deliberative session for Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m. in the Prospect Mountain High School auditorium, with a snow date of Thursday, Feb. 4; approved an outstanding $45,000 change order for the replacement of the Alton Shores culvert; accepted a bid of $7,860 from Target New England for the replacement of the East Alton fire station's roof; accepted a bid of $19,000 for survey work on Coffin Brook Road, Prospect Mountain Road, and Trask Side Road; and awarded the annual contract for tax map updates to Cartographics.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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