HARRY MERROW opted not to seek re-election this year after serving as an Ossipee selectman for 15 years. During the March 19 Ossipee Town Meeting which was also Merrow's birthday, Selectman Richard Morgan, left, credited Merrow, right, with his thoughtful and diligent management of the town, that has helped bolster the Town's secure financial position, including a healthy fund balance. Merrow was presented with a plaque in recognition of his time in office. (Mellisa Seamans photo) (click for larger version)
March 27, 2014OSSIPEE — Every available chair was set up for Town Meeting here on Wednesday, March 19, in anticipation of a full house but just half were filled as 108 Ossipee voters turned out for the evening.
Town Meeting was originally scheduled for March 12. Due to a snowstorm, it was rescheduled to March 19. As snow fell the evening of March 19, voters spent about three hours approving the 2014 operating budget and related warrant articles with minimal debate. By the time the last article was discussed, about half of those in attendance had left the meeting. At one point there was a brief interruption as police requested that whoever parked in front of the highway garage move their vehicle so the trucks could get out and start plowing the accumulating snowfall on town roads.
At the beginning of the meeting, a motion was made to move the last two articles – union contract increases and the ambulance contract discussion – to be voted on first. With no amendment, voters accepted the increases in salary and benefits brought on by the three-year collective bargaining agreement.
As for the ambulance contract, a cost of $562,822 for 2014, voters approved the amount, albeit reluctantly, and with the underlying message that they want selectmen and emergency officials to work towards reducing this cost in the future. The town's 2013 contract cost for ambulance service was $199,000.
Ossipee Selectman Richard Morgan said this item was the "largest and most controversial item of the evening" and the ambulance issue "has consumed more of the selectmen's time than any other issue." He told voters that the selectmen had come to "an agreement with the past ambulance provider that they (LifeStar) could no longer provide service" and had to seek service from another provider. He urged voters to approve the contract at a cost he called expensive and unfortunate but a realistic cost to provide ambulance service to Ossipee. He also called the amount of money a "temporary situation" and said the selectmen hope to work with neighboring towns to negotiate a better deal for future years. "There are people walking around today because of the commitment the town makes to its emergency services…I don't like the amount of the increase at all. It costs an awful lot of money but quite frankly, we don't have a lot of choice," said Morgan.
There were a few who disagreed with this assertion, including Ossipee resident Ralph Brownell, who said voters should vote against the article. "We've got three fire departments. When the bell rings, they go. We are locking ourselves in and I think we should vote down this article," said Brownell, who further suggested that some people use the ambulance when it is unnecessary. "Take your hangnails and your broken ribs to the hospital and wait with everyone else," he said.
Budget Committee member Joe Goss was the lone vote on that committee against the appropriation. He said that while he understands the need for the service, but it is just too much money to pay for it. In addition to the subsidy that CarePlus will be receiving from the town, they will also be billing patients and, if available, their insurance companies.
Morgan said it is federal law that this billing must be done. Selectmen have also worked into the contract that any time a CarePlus ambulance responds to assist another town, taking one of the two designated ambulances out of Ossipee, the company will be fined $500 per call. Ultimately, the voters easily approved the $562,822 article. With that, this year, taxpayers here will shell out a combined $1,992,982 for its three fire departments and its ambulance contract.
At the beginning of the evening's meeting, Morgan told voters that the selectmen and Budget Committee worked diligently on behalf of the taxpayers during the budget season and made significant cuts to areas of the budget, including road reconstruction, to make up for the near-tripling increase in the cost of ambulance service. He urged voters to go along with the evening's recommended budget and not add to the amounts proposed. "We rise and sink together. Anything you add could very quickly undo the work we have tried to do on your behalf," said Morgan.
Ultimately, voters approved all of the recommended budget amounts but did add $11,500 to the bottom line for two non-profit groups. Center Ossipee resident Kim Altomare made an impassioned plea in favor of Carroll County Transit and its Blue Loon bussing service as did Ossipee Concerned Citizens' Director Donna Sargent. The Budget Committee had recommended cutting the amount for Blue Loon from $3,000 to $1,500. Sargent has long been an advocate of the bus service and for the people who rely heavily on it to get to shopping and medical appointments and took issue with those who have been opposed to the service since its inception. "Some people just hate the bus. I love the bus. I hope you will support the bus," said Sargent. Her comment drew laughter from the crowd who then vote to restore the $3,000 for the bus.
Budget Committee member Marie McConarty motioned to amend the requested $10,000 for the Schools Out! program at Ossipee Central School, increasing funding to $20,000. Program director Jen Berkowitz explained it costs $160,000 to keep the program running every year, half of which is funded through a federal grant, with $80,000 left to be raised through private donations and fundraising. Center Ossipee resident Jim Rines called the program "phenomenal," and former selectman and Schools Out! board member Harry Merrow also spoke in support. Voters overwhelmingly agreed with the increase.
Recommendations by Ossipee Budget Committee member Tom Kondrat to reduce some budget lines, including longevity pay for workers in the town clerk's office, fell flat as voters went along with all of the remaining budget recommendations on the warrant.
The total approved cost to operate town government here stands at $6,148,587 for 2014. Included in that amount, the highway department will be purchasing a new plow truck, electrical and computer system upgrades will be made to town buildings, two new police cruisers will be purchased, and the final matching payment will be made to get the Whittier Covered Bridge project complete and open for traffic.