June 24, 2018
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Town building transfer talks between Wreaths Across America and Columbia Falls officials turn testy

By Tim Cox, BDN Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — The Board of Selectmen held a special meeting Monday with representatives of Wreaths Across America to begin the process of negotiating a transfer of the town’s municipal building to the nonprofit organization.

However, the discussion quickly devolved into a series of strained, colorful exchanges among some of the parties and one resident who attended the meeting.

At the conclusion of the 90-minute session, though, spirits were more cordial, and the selectmen appeared determined to embark on perhaps amending the proposed purchase-and-sale agreement drafted by a Wreaths Across America attorney and sending it back to the nonprofit for consideration.

Residents voted 51-32 at a special town meeting in December to convey the structure, an old school, to Wreaths Across America, which leases space in the building for offices and a small museum. In return, the town would be granted a free, lifetime lease for its offices, selectmen told voters.

The rationale for giving the building to the organization was that the structure needs substantial repairs — which would become Wreaths Across America’s responsiblity — and is costly to operate.

The town meeting vote also authorized the board to negotiate the details with WAA, which is known for providing Christmas wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery and has close ties to Harrington-based Worcester Wreath Co. That business also leases space in the municipal building.

The issue continues to divide the community, Selectman Bernard “Bun” Ward acknowledged at a January board meeting.

Ward was the chief antagonist in Monday’s discussions. On one side were the board and its attorney. On the other was Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, her attorney and a couple of board members of the nonprofit.

Ward and Worcester engaged in verbal skirmishes, and Ward also sparred with board chairman Alan Grant. Only a few residents attended the meeting, but one, Vance Pineo Sr., also tangled with Grant, Worcester and Wreaths Across America board member Joseph Tibbetts.

After selectmen spent about 10 minutes reading the proposed agreement in silence, the discussion soon became contentious when Ward said, “It looks to me like negotiations have already taken place here.”

“This is a draft, actually,” Worcester said.

Wreaths Across America was asked to prepare a proposed agreement, she said, and spent money to have it drawn up by its attorney, Sarah Reinhart.

Charles Gilbert, legal counsel for the town, noted the proposal gives Columbia Falls the right of first refusal if Wreaths Across America ever decides to sell the building. However, it did not specify precise terms, he noted.

Ward questioned why the organization needed the gymnasium portion of the building. Wreaths Across America needs the space to hold functions, Worcester said.

“With all due respect … I thought this was already decided,” said Worcester.

The provisions of the agreement were to be negotiated, not “dictated” by Wreaths Across America, Ward said.

“I’m not dictating, sir,” Worcester said.

The issues about ownership of the gymnasium and other provisions were fully discussed at the December town meeting, said Worcester, who reminded Ward that she had been berated by speakers at the meeting.

Ward also objected to conveying old locker rooms to Wreaths Across America. Town records are being stored in the locker rooms.

“It [the agreement] doesn’t work,” said Worcester, if the gym cannot be used with the locker rooms.

“We just walked our butts all around to be accommodating … It’s nitpicking to me … I don’t know,” said Worcester. “I still am hearing the Hatfields and the McCoys. I’m not interested in that … If you want to negotiate, let’s negotiate the thing we talked about already.”

“I’m not going to keep coming back here to get pounded around because you people can’t get along,” she added.

“It’s like bait and switch, Bun … we talked about all these things,” said Worcester, referring to the town meeting.

Ward indicated that he was motivated to revisit the questions by residents who want to ensure that the selectmen negotiate for the town’s best interest.

“This building belongs to the town of Columbia Falls,” said Pineo, who asked for a moment to address the board.

“You voted,” to convey the building to Wreaths Across America, Grant said.

“You don’t know how I voted,” Pineo said.

“You voted as a group,” said Grant, his voice rising.

After Pineo responded to a comment by Gilbert, Grant told Pineo, “Be quiet please.”

“You might as well go home right now,” added Grant.

Pineo suggested the issue of conveying the building to Wreaths Across America should never have been settled by a special town meeting vote.

“That’s over and done with, Vance,” said Grant.

After more wrangling between Worcester and Ward, Grant asked Ward, “My question is, what do you want to negotiate?”

Ward said he was interested in obtaining space near the town office as an alternate area to store the town’s records, ensuring groups will continue to have access to the gym and some other facilities, and the terms of returning the building to the town if Wreaths Across America later decides to dispose of it.

Worcester argued that Wreaths Across America should be able to sell the building to the town at the market price in the future.

“Why should Wreaths Across America realize that profit in selling it back to us who gave it to you in the beginning?” asked Ward.

Worcester pointed out that the town would get something in exchange for the building. In the proposed lease under consideration, Wreaths Across America would pay all the operating costs of the building; the town essentially would get free office space.

“We’ve put out our negotiations,” said Tibbetts before storming out of the meeting soon after. “It’s time for the selectmen to negotiate with us, and we come to an agreement.”

Worcester indicated she was willing to “give and take” to make the agreement more palatable to the board.

“If you’d said that in the beginning it would have saved us a lot of problems,” replied Ward.

Reinhart suggested the selectmen could take the proposed agreement, make changes to it, and submit it back to Wreaths Across America for consideration.

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