January 03, 2013WAKEFIELD — Three topics dominated Wakefield selectmen's meetings in 2012: the Municipal Resources Inc. (MRI) study of town operations; the Time Warner cable contract renewal; and the proposal to acquire 121 acres of Union Meadows for conservation purposes.
The purpose of the MRI study was to compare town operations with those of six other similar-size towns in New Hampshire and Maine and to identify areas where sensible changes could lower the cost of government. After years of fighting cost increases, deferring road maintenance and equipment purchases, selectmen felt they needed a reliable outside consultant to do the job. In the view of longtime Selectman Mark Duffy, the board was running out of places to cut and the next step was to eliminate a department or service, unless alternatives could be identified.
On Dec. 28, 2011 selectmen voted to carry over $30,000 from 2011 to be used to fund most of the cost of the MRI study. That decision was challenged at the Feb. 4 Deliberative Session and again at the board's Feb. 8 meeting. While some objected to selectmen making the decision to go ahead with MRI for the study without voter approval, others (notably Johnny Blackwood and Donna Faucette) felt that the town itself could do the work and save most of the money.
Per an initial discussion with Don Jutton, President of MRI, on Jan. 11, a draft reported was expected as early as April but the public hearing on the draft did not happen until Nov. 14. MRI interviewed town employees and department heads and solicited public comment through a survey on the town website.
At the Nov. 14 meeting Jutton and his four lead investigators made numerous recommendations for the fire, police, highway, and solid waste departments and Town Hall operations, but the only one that appeared to offer possible savings was the turn over the partial police dispatching the town does on its own to the County Sheriff's dispatch center. Other recommendations, such as creating a capital improvements program, replacing the ambulance more often and looking into creating a public works department by acquiring the water system and combining it with the sewer solid waste and highway departments were likely to cost more but provide better service. "Don't be penny wise and pound foolish," the town was advised. "There is a tendency to be too frugal."
While the MRI study was being prepared, selectmen explored not replacing Dan Davis and Rusty Loring of the highway department, who both retired in the spring, by having some snow plowing done by private contractors. Response to a request for bids was weak and several residents, including newly-retired Road Agent Dan Davis and former Selectman Johnny Blackwood, led the board to drop the idea. In the meantime the school board approached selectmen with the idea of sharing the cost of a mechanic who could service both school buses as well as town vehicles. A Joint Vehicle Maintenance Committee was formed to review the proposal. In the end two employees were hired for the highway department and the new mechanic, Al Canney, is in process of setting up a trial joint maintenance program for 2013.
Time Warner Cable
The town's current cable contract has been in place for 25 years and was negotiated with operators that preceded current operator Time Warner Cable. The town retained the services of Attorney Kate Miller, the cable specialist at Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, who was also assisting Tuftonboro in its negations with Time Warner.
Contract discussions on Aug. 29 focused on four main areas: the length of the contract; extending service to unserved areas of town, including new residential and commercial buildings; the franchise fee; and providing equipment and a second channel for Wakefield's existing public access television station. Residents also complained about having Portland, Maine, broadcast channels offered instead of Boston channels.
The town asked for a term of five years and Time Warner asked for 15. A compromise of 10 years was suggested.
On extending service to unserved areas of town, Time Warner resisted such a requirement but was willing to consider it if subsidized by the franchise fee. It was pointed ou that most of the town is covered. The company also refused to guarantee automatic cable service to new homes and businesses.
Time Warner offered a franchise fee of two percent of cable TV receipts. Miller said the range is two to five percent and asked that the fee be increased. Time Warner said at two percent the franchise fee would be $34,000 a year.
On providing equipment for the town's public access channel as well as a second channel, Time Warner said they would consider it.
Jim Miller announced the formation of Clearview Community Television Services as a nonprofit corporation to manage the public access station. He was joined in the effort by Relf Fogg. Jerry O'Connor, Nick Scala and Stan Lombara. The corporation was formed before year end and has applied for nonprofit status.
The town's Conservation Commission under Chairman Dave Mankus negotiated the purchase of 121 acres of land at Union Meadows, which lies along the Branch River above the Union dam for a price of $150,000. Mankus then successfully applied for grants to pay most of the cost: the two major ones were $85,000 from N.H. Fish and Game in return for a conservation easement on the property and $50,000 from the Land and Community Investment Program (LCHIP). The town's share of the purchase, including closing costs, would be $30-$35,000 for existing conservation funds.
The reason for the purchase is to conserve the open space and protect water quality in the Branch River. The remaining section of the Meadows are already protected by conservation easements.
While selectmen approved the purchase and signed a purchase and sales agreement on the properties involved, some residents objected to the purchase as soon as it came up at the Feb. 8 selectmen's meeting and continued to object through the year up to the two final public hearings required to accept the grants on Nov. 14 and 28. At the second hearing the lead objector, Jerry O'Connor, presented selectmen with a petition signed by 58 residents requiring that the purchase be approved by voters in March 2013.
The chief objection was to the N.H. Fish and Game conservation easement. Some opponents argued that the purchase was part of the secret implementation of Agenda 21, a 1992 non-binding United Nations protocol urging sustainable development, and would lead to the end of private land ownership. Others objected to the federal source of the $85,000 (from sales of ammunition) and the boilerplate language of the easement that they argued gave the state and federal governments unfair control over the future uses of the land.
As of year end a warrant article on the purchase was being drafted for the March ballot. The issue may be decided before March if the land owner decides the terms of the signed purchase and sale agreement were voided by the delay and seeks to sell the property to another land conservation group or groups.
Under the leadership of Pam Judge the Heritage Commission completed work on the Freight House at the Union Railroad Station and dedicated it on June 30. The commission also again hosted Heritage Day on Aug. 11 at the Heritage Center and Resource Center.
The commission also arranged for the gift of a blacksmith shop in Union that will be restored and opened as a working exhibit.
On May 8 the commission won a N.H. Preservation Alliance award for "outstanding planning, education, and advocacy."
The board of the Wakefield Food Pantry had a very successful year, winning approval of voters for a 99-year lease on town land next to the highway department garage for a new building, raising $150,000 to erect the building and then completing construction by year end. A small army of volunteers help with the fundraising, which included a matching grant, and with the actual construction. Fundraising efforts included an art show in June organized by Brookfield artist Ron Fountain and a Wakefield Opera House fundraiser supported by the town's churches on Sept. 16. The lease cost only $1 for the 99 years and selectmen agreed to waive all town fees for the project. The new building will open on Jan. 2, 2013. Moving out of the former Meadow Street location will free significant space for the Wakefield Parks and Recreation Department.
Wakefield Pride Day was held May 19. The future of the event was in doubt until Parks and Rec took sole responsibility for it: a marching band will be added to the 2013 event.
The annual Bearded Wonders variety show took place on Feb. 19 and the Tree of Memories ceremony was held on Dec. 15. Both events raise funds for Central New Hampshire VNA & Hospice.
The annual Union Village Fair was held on Sept. 15.
Selectmen voted to abolish permit fees for replacement roofs, windows and siding on May 17.
Selectmen also instituted weekly meetings, adding a 4 p.m. worksession on the Wednesday that they do not hold an evening meeting, beginning July 18.
Ed Morrision of Wakefield Projects Inc. proposed erecting a Town Events sign at Town Hall that would list town-wide events as well as Opera House performances. The Heritage Commission objected and the focus has shifted instead to replacing the present sign at Turntable Park with something more substantial and lighted.
Selectmen held two discussions about repairing the Maple Street Bridge in Union. The bridge is currently ranked third in line for repair and, Selectman Chair Ken Paul pointed out, has a nearby alternative route, unlike the other two. Residents affected may submit a petition warrant article asking voters to approve repairs.
Concerned Residents of Wakefield (CROW) was active during the year, hosting two county candidate forums before the September elections as well as a presentation on objections to the Union Meadows project. CROW members complained that their taped meetings were not being aired promptly on the public access channel: Station Manager Jerry O'Connor identified the problems causing the delays and addressed them.
Selectman Mark Duffy decided not to run for a fifth term. Charlie Edwards and Jerry O'Connor ran for his seat and Edwards came out on top.
Brad Hayes also ended his long run as Moderator and turned over his gravel to his son-on-law Dino Scala.
Denny Miller also stepped off the Budget Committee to focus his efforts on the Food Pantry building project.
Zakri Archer was awarded his Eagle Scout honor on Feb. 11. His community service project was the restoration of the town pound off East Side Road.
The town was shocked at the sudden death of Pam Knight on July 29. She was involved in many town activities and lately was part of the team building the new Wakefield Food Pantry building with husband Howie Knight. She will be sorely missed.