September 22, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Day of work will make all ages richer

Lydia Leimbach is hardly the first person to take a stab at the vexing question of how Maine should best pay for its public schools. Nor, alas, will her answer lower anyone's property tax bill.

But Leimbach, who works as the technology integrator at Hall-Dale high and middle schools in Farmingdale, couldn't just sit there last spring when an elderly woman from nearby Dresden stood up during a Regional School Unit 2 budget hearing and spoke eloquently about what a local tax hike would mean for the home her family had inhabited for generations.

"She said that if taxes went up any higher, there was a possibility that there would be a lien against her house," recalled Leimbach. "She was on a fixed income and she couldn't absorb anything else."

Now bear in mind that Leimbach was at that hearing because her job was potentially on the line. Still, rather than tune out the woman's lament as the cost of keeping the schools running, she got an idea.

"I thought, 'I can't pay her taxes for her,' " Leimbach said. "Then I thought, 'Why can't we include Dresden in our Day of Caring?' "

Leimbach also serves as adviser to the high school's Key Club -- a driving force behind this year's first-ever Day of Caring for the Hall-Dale schools' entire population.

On Monday morning, 530 kids in grades 6 through 12 will fan out over the district -- it encompasses the Kennebec Valley towns of Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Monmouth and Dresden -- to clean up parks, volunteer at the area animal shelter, help out at an assisted-living facility and, in the case of the 68-member senior class, make life a little bit easier for the elderly taxpayers of tiny Dresden.

It all took root as that budget hearing broke up and Leimbach made a beeline for Phil Johnston, chairman of the Dresden Board of Selectmen. If she supplied the kids, she asked, could they supply enough older folks who need help with yard work, exterior painting and other jobs they otherwise would have to pay someone to tackle?

"I jumped at it," said Johnston in an interview last week. "It was a no-brainer."

Two months ago, Dresden's three-member board of selectmen mailed a flier to every home in town. It began with a list of late-summer chores -- gutter cleaning, brush trimming, garden picking, wood stacking, fence painting -- that weigh heavily on any elderly or disabled homeowner when the temperature drops and the leaves start to turn.

"If you are elderly or not able to do these tasks yourself, give us a call at the Town Office," urged the notice. "THESE STUDENTS ARE READY TO GIVE YOU A HAND!!"

"I was shocked. I really was," said Gail Schroeder during a break Friday from her hobby of refinishing old, discarded furniture.

Schroeder, 65, is still in remission from an immuno-disorder that forced her to retire four years ago from her longtime job with the Maine Municipal Association.

She lives alone in an 11-room house and has a bum knee that will buckle if she so much as looks at the four-plus cords of firewood now sitting in a huge heap in her driveway.

"I had been looking for some help -- it's stuff I can't do," Schroeder said. "And I thought I was going to have to hire somebody."

The old wooden pallets on which last year's woodpile sat are rotten and need to be carried down to the burn pile. This year's wood needs to be stacked. And the yard -- well, that could use a little muscle as well.

"I think I'm going to be able to keep them busy," Schroeder said with a grateful smile.

Ditto for Gerry Smith, 79, who once flew helicopters for the U.S. Marine Corps but now gets around with a strong assist from his cane. His wife, Anne, has prepared a handwritten punch list for the six kids headed their way: Paint top of barn door overhang, sweep garage, cut brush on bank, paint bulkhead doors

"My wife is very organized," said Smith with a chuckle. "I'm slightly inconvenienced physically and these things, I probably wouldn't be able to get to them. We're very pleased to have this happen."

In all, the high school seniors will visit seven homes throughout Dresden before heading back to school for an all-grades barbecue.

E.J. Prescott Inc., a waterworks distributor out of Gardiner, is putting on the massive cookout. Tools for the projects will be delivered to each work site by G&E Roofing of Augusta. T-shirts, water and logistical support come courtesy of the United Way of Kennebec Valley.

In other words, from where Hall-Dale High School Principal Mark Tinkham sits, it's as good a lesson about community-building as he can imagine. (The same community, it should be noted, that saw beyond its financial constraints and voted in a separate warrant to add K-12 foreign-language instruction to the district's overall school budget.)

"They give so much to us," said Tinkham. "It's important that we give something back."

Hall-Dale senior Taylor Lockhart, 17, admits he hasn't spent a lot of time thinking about property taxes. But as president of the local Key Club, he sees Monday's trip to Dresden as "an opportunity I don't think we've had in the past."

How so?

"The 'little things' aren't so little anymore," Lockhart replied. "Hearing that someone doesn't have heat isn't so little anymore. It makes me want to go out and make a difference. Now I get to see it first-hand."

One last thing about that property-tax increase that loomed over Dresden last spring: Selectman Johnston reports that thanks to municipal-budget adjustments and other tweaks that offset the increased school costs, the local mill rate remained flat after all.

Still, tax increase or no tax increase, you can't look at what has become of Lydia Leimbach's light-bulb moment without concluding that come Monday, the town of Dresden will be a little richer.

"I don't think it's our town alone -- I think it's many towns," said Johnston. "There are folks throughout Maine who could really benefit from something like this."

Not to mention their kids.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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