More than 30 residents turned out in Cushing for a sometimes heated public hearing Feb. 22 on whether to buy a used front-end loader from one selectman or continue to lease a tractor from another.

Selectman Robert Stackpole said the town’s practice of paying Chairman Alton Grover $4,800 per year to provide the town with a tractor for loading sand is a conflict of interest.

Stackpole circulated a citizen initiative petition to put his proposal on the ballot. The question that will go before the voters during the election Monday, March 15 reads: “Shall the town vote to raise or appropriate $6,200 for the purchase of a front-end loader for the purpose of loading sand on town trucks in an attempt to save $15,000 in a five-year period?”

Stackpole said he had purchased a tractor he hoped to sell to the town for $6,200. He said he purchased it because he felt it would be good for the town and he did not expect to make any money in the deal.

For the past six to eight years, Grover said, the town has paid his company, Grover Construction, $1,200 per month for four months out of the year to lease his tractor. He said the town is only charged for the rental of the tractor. He provides the fuel, repairs and insurance.

The actual work is done by Grover and public works drivers.

Asked after the meeting if this is a conflict of interest, Grover said the town checked with the Maine Municipal Association and it said it is OK as long as he abstains from voting on the tractor or related issues.

Stackpole said the Board of Selectmen will not discuss the issue. “He brings his tractor down and sends a bill,” Stackpole said.

Stackpole acknowledged that Grover abstains from the vote on the issue, but said Grover influences the vote by speaking to the board on the issue before he abstains.

“He is prospering,” said Stackpole, who said the $4,800 is going in Grover’s pocket. “It’s nearly the value of the machine what we pay him per year.”

Stackpole’s counter proposal is that the town buy a used tractor from him for $6,200. He said he came across the used tractor for a good price and he believes it is in good condition. He bought it, he said, because he didn’t want the good deal to get away and he thought the town could use it.

“I’m not going to make a dime,” he said of the town buying the tractor from him. “I did it because it’s what the town should be doing.”

His plan was to sell the tractor to the town for the same price he paid for it, and he said he could easily sell the tractor to someone else if the town doesn’t want it.

Critics of Stackpole’s plan, however, question why the town should buy a piece of equipment and maintain it year-round when it’s only going to be used four months of the year. In addition, they question whether the town would then have to purchase liability insurance for the tractor before it could be used. The tractor does not have a roll bar or cab cover, which led some to question whether it could be safely used.

Stackpole said the tractor was manufactured that way, so it must be legal to operate it.

At the public hearing, concerns about insurance issues, safety and the cost of Stackpole’s proposal were raised.

Some questioned why the work is not put out to bid.

“I asked the selectmen to put it out to bid,” Stackpole said in the hearing. “They refused.”

Grover said the town put it out to bid in the 1980s or early 1990s and received no response. He said that now that there are so few work opportunities, people are showing an interest. “It’s a change,” he said.

Stackpole questioned the process. He said that after he gathered the signatures for the petition and turned it into the town, the issue arose whether the budget committee would recommend his proposal. The recommendations of the budget committee are normally printed on the ballot for voters to take into consideration on referendum questions.

Stackpole said that once he got the citizen petition signed, the budget hearings were closed, so his proposal was never discussed in an open budget committee hearing.

Instead, he said, each member of the budget committee was contacted by phone and asked for their vote on the recommendation. This resulted in a vote “not to recommend” Stackpole’s proposal.

The selectman said that was not a legal vote.

In response to his questions on the issue, the budget committee convened an emergency meeting at 9 a.m. on Feb. 23 at the community center/town office. Committee members Frank Muddle and Joe Smith joined Chairman David Brown in that meeting. Absent were David Farmer and John Griffith. Stackpole was also absent. He had said the night before he would be unable to attend due to important work he had to get done.

Muddle said with the tough economy, this is not the year to invest in a town tractor. While Stackpole had argued in a document presented to the town that his proposal would save the town more than $15,000 over five years, Muddle said Stackpole’s figures were optimistic and did not take into account the potential cost of a major repair to the tractor. Budget committee members also noted it would cost thousands of dollars to replace the tractor.

Smith said the underlying issue was that Stackpole was upset that this was not going out to bid each year. Smith added that bidding the work out was the right thing to do, or it would look like a conflict of interest.

Brown noted that the options on the table were to rent a tractor from one selectman or buy one from another, so there was a conflict either way.

After discussing the issue at length the budget committee voted 2-1 to make no recommendation on the proposal. Brown voted against the motion and he voiced opposition to Stackpole’s proposal.

The committee noted that the selectmen had also opted to offer no recommendation on the issue.

Residents will vote on the issue in the town elections Monday, March 15. The voting will be held from 2 to 8 p.m. at the Cushing Community Center.

Town meeting will be held Tuesday, March 16 at 7 p.m. at the Cushing Community Center.

 

 

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