THE DEBATE CONTINUES over whether or not all towns in the county should pay for the emergency dispatching center at the Sheriff's Department. Pictured here at the Oct. 7 meeting are (l-r): Reps. Donald Wright, Karel Crawford, Syndi White, and Susan Ticehurst, joined by Moultonborough Town Administrator Carter Terenzini and Conway Town Manager Earl Sires. (Courtesy image from www.governmentoversite.com) (click for larger version)
October 10, 2013OSSIPEE — On one side of the argument, a few want what they say is fair and equitable. For the other side, which happened to be the most vocal, Wakefield Police Chief Ken Fifield summed it up bluntly, "This whole argument is dumb."
At issue is whether or not three Carroll County towns should have to pay for emergency dispatching services they are not using. A meeting of the county delegation subcommittee appointed to explore the issue met Oct. 7 in Ossipee. The towns of Conway, Moultonborough, and Wolfeboro have their own dispatching centers, while the rest of the towns in the county rely almost solely on Carroll County Dispatch in Ossipee. And representatives from those three towns argue their taxpayers should be getting a break, especially since emergency dispatching is an added service the County has developed, and is not required by state law.
The subcommittee is chaired by former Moultonborough selectman and now state representative Karel Crawford, who has made it very clear she is taking a side in this debate. "Moultonborough always gets the raw end of the stick because of our assessed value. Everybody says we are a rich town. We are property rich but we're not income rich. We always get our services based on our assessed value, not on how much we use them," said Crawford.
The meeting brought out more questions than answers. The general opinion of those who want to see a fee-for-service basis for funding the county dispatch center seems to be that every town should pay a base fee. What each town pays above that, they say, should be based on how much each town actually relies on the center.
The lead in the charge to change the current system has been taken on by Moultonborough Town Administrator Carter Terenzini. "Paying a county tax to provide dispatch for other communities so that they may have a lower tax levy subsidized by the additional tax levy that we pay we do not believe is fair or voluntary and we are not in agreement," said Terezini.
Fifield referred to the plan to change the way the dispatch center is funded as a Ponzi scheme. He said the three towns chose not to have their emergency services dispatched by the county and decided to have their own centers. He argued that the dispatch cannot be singled out and referred to it as "cherry-picking." What is next, he questioned, would the county budget be further picked apart in the future based on how much each town uses the other county services such as the jail, nursing home, and county attorney's office?
Several others in addition to Fifield spoke to the benefits of all towns working in a cooperative way under the county umbrella instead of all fending for themselves.
"We are a county. We try to join our funds together. Moultonborough could probably save a ton of money if the county dispatched for them. If you start pulling it apart you're going to have town against town instead of all the towns trying to work together. We have enough of that in Washington," said Freedom Selectman Les Babb, "I would like to see the county more incorporated instead of splitting apart."
Despite several saying they agree focusing on dispatch is cherry-picking, Crawford said, "I don't believe anybody here thinks this is cherry-picking. Moultonborough, Conway, and Wolfeboro are paying for Wakefield and Tuftonboro and all the other towns to have dispatching. We are just asking for a little relief. I live in Moultonborough. I am prejudiced. The county could come together and say it isn't fair for the three towns to pay the dispatch bill when they don't use the dispatch. We are not trying to pick and choose what we want to pay; we are just looking for some relief."
"I think it is cherry-picking. I don't think that is how New Hampshire works, pitting town against town and being so divisive," said Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury. He said it has been Moultonborough's decision to continue to add staff and dispatching services when they could have joined the county dispatch but chose not to.
Madison Selectman John Arruda and Sheriff Domenic Richardi were among those who also spoke against the change.
"I understand what you're all saying. Great idea that everybody works together. There comes a point when the sugar daddy is getting hurt. When we are paying that big portion of the county budget, it is not fair," said Moultonborough Selectman Joel Mudgett.
In the current tax system, the annual county budget is approved by the county delegation. From the total budget amount deductions are then made for any revenue the County anticipates it will take in during the ensuing year. The delegation then decides what amount, if any, of leftover money (surplus) from previous years will be deducted from the budget. The dollar amount that is left after the deductions is the amount the County needs to raise from property taxes. That amount is divvied up amongst all the towns and unincorporated places in Carroll County based on the total property valuation of each town and a county tax rate is set for each town. Individual property owners then pay their share of county tax based on the value of their individual property. The county tax rate for Carroll County property owners is around one dollar per thousand dollars of assessed property valuation.
Moultonborough, Wolfeboro and Conway combined pay about 50 percent of the County's budget because they are the towns with the highest property value. Moultonborough alone is valued at $2.7 billion, Wolfeboro at $2.3 billion, and Conway at $1.4 billion. In comparison, Wakefield is valued at $912 million and Ossipee at $700 million. This translates into a hefty county tax bill for the three "richest" towns whose combined county bill was $6.7 million of the total $13.2 million collected for the County.
At their weekly meeting later that day, on Oct. 7, Ossipee Selectman and retired police chief Richard Morgan stated his objection to the three towns wanting a tax break. Morgan said this is a "dangerous road to start down" and referred to the picking and choosing of what county services are to be prorated. He said that all three of the towns chose to establish their own dispatch centers instead of using the county service. And, if fee-for-service billing method is implemented, one estimate that he saw is that Ossipee taxpayers would be responsible for paying an additional $98,000 per year to the county. He further pointed out how much Ossipee taxpayers already subsidize county government beyond their county tax bill. The County pays no Ossipee property taxes on the County-owned property that is valued at $29 million nor does the County pay for fire department responses to the complex. 'I don't think it is fair for them (three towns) to ask us to offset what they choose not to use," said Morgan.
Ultimately, the full county delegation will decide whether towns will continue to pay their apportionment of the county budget in the way it has historically been done. Their decision will likely be based on whatever recommendation the subcommittee makes. While Crawford has been vocal about which side she is taking, her fellow subcommittee members have not been, though all asked several questions in an attempt to gather more information. The other members are Rep. Susan Ticehurst (D-Tamworth), Rep. Donald Wright (R-Tuftonboro) and Rep. Syndi White (D-Conway).
The next subcommittee meeting is open to the public and will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 9 a.m. in the delegation room of Carroll County Administration Building in Ossipee.