Freedom voters approve lower operating budget for 2014

FREEDOM SELECTMAN LES BABB presented a congratulatory plaque to recognize Town Administrator Karen Hatch for her 25 years of service to the town. And as a point of clarification that was made after the presentation, no, Hatch is not retiring. This was simply the selectmen's way of thanking her for all of the work she has done (so far) for the Town of Freedom. (Mellisa Seamans photo) (click for larger version)
March 13, 2014
FREEDOM — Climb the creaky wooden stairs to the second floor of Freedom Town Hall on the second Tuesday of every March and there you will find the community gathered together for Town Meeting. At this year's Town Meeting on March 11, about eight percent of the town's population decided how to spend $2.6 million in tax dollars.

Moderator Don Johnson kept the meeting flowing along, offering explanations, allowing all questions, and inserting his usual humor into the three-hour meeting attended by 118 registered voters.

The most debated article of the day centered on an impassioned plea by the residents in the Durgin Hill subdivision, who petitioned the Town Meeting with a request to accept their private road as a town road. The request to accept the one and a half-mile long gravel road drew the support of several other town residents that do not live on the road. Maynard Thomson said accepting the road and maintaining it as a town road makes the property in the subdivision more marketable and is critical to attracting young families to settle in Freedom. Pat Hatfield works at Freedom Elementary School and knows many of the families that live on Durgin Hill Road. She said the people who live up there are "so involved with the town, with the school" and deserve this in return.

Durgin Hill resident Michael Douglas pointed out the development has 21 houses of which 19 are year-round residences, ten percent of the Freedom Elementary School population, and pays about $50,000 a year in property taxes. He asked his fellow voters to consider giving the Durgin Hill residents the same road maintenance benefit that other areas of town receive. As for naysayers who might have thought that approving this request would set a precedent and mean that other private roads would automatically be accepted as town roads in the future, Douglas said, "That is the great thing about our Town Meeting. Just because we vote yes for Durgin Hill does not mean we are voting yes for every road. The people of Freedom have the ability and right to listen to each case and decide what they think is right at the time."

Freedom Road Agent Scott Brooks asserted that the subdivision was developed back in 1974 under the town's subdivision regulations. Those rules point out that in order for the town to accept a private road as a town road, the road must have been built to town specifications, including paving, which was never done. He added that the culverts and drainage have never been updated and are now 40 years old. "As long as you are aware of what it means to take on this road, vote your conscience," he said. With that, the voters in attendance cast their secret ballot and the article passed with 76 yes votes to 34 no votes.

Durgin Hill Road now represents about two percent of the town's total road mileage. When Brooks said his department would need extra money in the budget to pay for Durgin Hill Road maintenance, the voters added $12,000 to his budget.

The town was already maintaining Durgin Hill in the winter. Under a state law that allows such a measure, Freedom Selectmen had previously agreed to designate Durgin Hill as a "winter road" maintained by the town from Nov. 1 to April 1.

This year's Freedom budget is down by about $300,000 from last year's budget. Voters Tuesday approved a $2,252,007 operating budget, money to purchase a new loader for the highway department, money for road paving and sealing, and contributions to several capital reserve funds to save money for future big purchases or costly equipment repairs.

In other articles, $5,000 was approved for a new fire alarm system for the town hall, $5,000 to complete a community survey for the Master Plan, and $5,000 to have a consultant do a "build-out" study to determine growth rate, potential building, and what year it is anticipated that the lakefront will reach its buildable capacity. Thomson called this study a "critical element of long range planning."

An article requesting $5,000 for Freedom Food Pantry passed without objection. Pantry director Doris Sirois said the number of people seeking assistance from the pantry increased 35 percent in November and has stayed consistently 35 percent higher. The bulk of pantry customers are from Ossipee, followed by Effingham, and then Freedom. Voters in the other two towns are expected to vote on funding a contribution to the pantry at their Town Meetings this year as well.

"We never thank anybody," said Freedom Selectman Les Babb. But that changed on Tuesday when, in a surprise presentation, he gave Town Administrator Karen Hatch a plaque to commemorate her 25 years of service to the town. He said Hatch gives probably more time than she should to the town, she truly loves the town, and he could not imagine doing the job of selectman without her help.

In another presentation, John Shipman presented a gift to the town from the historical society, an antique framed Freedom Old Home Week poster and asked that it be hung in a town building for all to enjoy.

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