April 05, 2020

Columbia officials spar on shelter reimbursement> Site closed after clerk presented with $15,000 bill

COLUMBIA — Selectman Marilyn Worcester said she pulled the plug on Columbia’s emergency shelter this week after the town clerk was presented with a $15,000 bill from the 30 volunteers who ran the town’s storm center.

Worcester appears to be pitting herself against other town officials in what some have termed “small-town politics” over reimbursement issues. Worcester said she raised the issue of the shelter during a Jan. 20 selectmen’s meeting a week after Columbia’s power was restored.

“They served 55 meals in nine days,” Worcester said.”They were feeding the National Guardsmen who were working up on the Schoodic barrens because they said all the guard had were C rations. I was an Army wife and I’ve eaten C rations. They aren’t bad.”

Selectman Bartlett Smith said what was presented to the town clerk was not a bill, but an account kept for statistical purposes. Someone in the Washington County emergency management office told him they wanted a list of what was spent during the storm, Smith said.

“He told me he didn’t know what was going to be reimbursed and he wanted a list,” Smith said. “I told everyone to keep track of their time. We wanted an account of what was spent.”

Acting Fire Chief Michael Allen confirmed that Smith called him on the morning of Jan. 19 and asked him to put together a list of man-hours with figures attached reflecting the state’s wage rate.

Allen said the fire department went around with generators and started people’s furnaces and delivered water. He said he turned in gas receipts to the town clerk for fuel used in the generator at the town shelter.

Allen said the shelter served between two and 11 people a night and there were two people staying there up to the time the shelter closed. None of the volunteers expect to be paid, he said.

Worcester said she believes Smith was trying to get as much money as he could and questions why, if what was submitted was an account, Allen asked for the bills to put on the town warrant.

Town Clerk Mary Ann Nichols said Allen came into the office Monday and told her he’d gotten a call that morning saying he needed to submit a listing of the number of hours and the workers. Nichols said Allen also submitted a bill for the use of the generators and the number of hours that people used fire-department trucks to take the generators around.

Nichols said she had some questions about what the federal government would reimburse and called Paul Thompson, director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency.

“He led me to understand that volunteer time was probably not reimbursable,” Nichols said.

Shelter director Leslie Gray said the shelter did a lot of good and the people who stayed there were very grateful. Many townspeople are elderly and on a fixed income and really welcomed the meals. Gray said all the food was donated by Washington County grocery stores and the shelter also received private donations.

“No one expects any money,” Gray said. “There were a lot of people who gave of their time and they did that money or no money. If there’s money available, fine. If there isn’t, that’s fine, too. This is just small-town politics.”

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