March 21, 2019BRISTOL — There were just enough votes to approve an extension of the municipal sewer line to Newfound Lake during the Bristol Town Meeting on Saturday, March 16, and residents also increased the operating budget and passed the other spending requests in a five-and-a-half-hour session.
In a special recognition at the start of the meeting, Selectman Rick Alpers and former selectman Paul Fraser praised Edward "Ned" Gordon for his 25 years' service as town and school district moderator, as well as his other roles, including as a selectman and serving as chair of the space needs committee that helped with the purchase of the former Newfound Family Practice building as a new town hall. His roots to the community run deep: While attending school here, he had been named "Mr. Bristol."
Gordon responded that it was a pleasure to serve, saying he and his wife had made a conscious choice to live here even when he had to commute to his job.
"I remember early on seeing a picture of three selectmen — Burt Williams, Charlie Greenwood, and George King — and thinking that was something I'd like to do," he said.
He said he takes great pride in being able to call people by their first names.
Alpers also noted that the selectmen had chosen the space needs committee for the town report dedication, with a special recognition of Barbara Greenwood for her many years of dedication to the entire community, working in many capacities and attending every meeting she could.
The town has considered extending the municipal sewer line to Newfound Lake since 1971 and gave conditional approval to a plan in 2009 that was contingent upon receiving a grant to cover a significant portion of the work. The grant did not come through but the town now has a line on a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant and loan program that would allow Bristol to complete a $20 million project.
The scaled-down project would include the first two phases of a $41.5 million program that, for now, would require spending about $20 million, with half of that coming from grants. The bond for the remainder of the cost required a two-thirds majority — or 110 votes — for passage. The ballot vote just made it, with 110 votes in the affirmative and 54 opposed.
Concern about the water quality at Newfound Lake drove the project. While there is little evidence that failing septic systems are responsible for the recent degradation of water quality in one of the cleanest lakes in the East — higher water levels, surface runoff, and the use of fertilizer on lawns are more likely contributors to the problem — there was general agreement that it is in the town's best interest to do everything it can to protect the lake, which is a major economic driver for the Newfound Region.
Besides the cost of the project, there were concerns about unbridled development around the lake if the municipal sewer system became available. Alpers said those concerns were addressed by revising the zoning ordinance when the town brought municipal water lines to the lake. The town prohibits large hotels and motels in the lake district.
Town Administrator Nik Coates said that, in addition to the Rural Development grant, he has initiated a conversation with Gov. Chris Sununu to obtain help from the state, which may want to tie Wellington State Park into the sewer system. Wellington lies just beyond the town's main water supply.
While selectmen gave assurances that the project would not go forward if the grant funding did not come through, there was also the issue of cost to lake residents.
The current proposal would force those near the new sewer line to pay a yearly betterment fee for the life of the 30-year loan, as well as regular user fees, and they would be responsible for the cost of connecting to the sewer system. One-third of the residences might also require the purchase pumps and electrical panels. Not only would taxpayers have to assume part of the cost, those at the lake also would likely see their property values rise, increasing their tax burden. One estimate put the impact for lake residents in the realm of $4,000-$7,000.
The answer to those concerns was a reminder that replacing a septic system can cost upwards of $20,000. The proposed betterment fee was calculated based on a 20-year replacement for such systems. There is a potential of crafting interest-free loans to property owners to make the investment affordable.
Much of the discussion also touched on the lack of assistance from surrounding towns. Many residents said Bristol is the bearing the burden for protecting the environment — as well as providing police and ambulance service that benefit the other towns — and some questioned what good it would do to protect Bristol's shores when other towns around the lake are not served by municipal sewers and might having failing septic systems.
Through parliamentary maneuvering, the town prevented any discussion of a petitioned article that would have required selectmen to spend money allocated for road work on that road work. Typically, selectmen have transferred money from the highway budget to cover other town expenses, and last year used highway funds for priorities they had proposed but which could not be covered in the approved budget.
To avoid "tying the selectmen's hands" this year, voters tabled the petitioned article until dealing with the operating budget, which also included the money for road work. Then, after setting the operating budget, Alpers moved to restrict reconsideration of the budget article. The effect was to prevent voters from approving the petitioned article and then going back to remove the duplicate funding from the budget article — unless they wanted to do so at a special meeting in the future.
The maneuver worked: When faced with doubling the appropriation or holding a second meeting to avoid doing so, voters chose not to take the petitioned article off the table.
Selectmen successfully amended the operating budget upwards from the $6,489,795 proposed by the Budget Committee to $6,522,295, to cover an increase in solid waste hauling fees announced after the budget work had been completed.
An attempt to reduce the operating budget to $6,049,708 — a 1.9 percent increase from last year's appropriation — failed.
John Sellers, who offered the amendment, argued that the 11.22 percent increase in spending in the proposed budget was excessive, but Selectman Don Milbrand pointed out that Sellers' approach ignored revenues. The impact on taxation is $80,000, and Milbrand argued that, if the town wanted to use the 1.9 percent cost-of-living increase, "a reasonable cut would be $57,000" — not the nearly $500,000 that Sellers was seeking.
Voters agreed to hire another full-time firefighter; designate that the first $60,000 in ambulance income be put into an ambulance replacement revolving fund; purchase a power stretcher for the ambulance; enter into leases for Tasers and body cameras for the police department; and appropriate $12,000 for fireworks for the town's Bicentennial celebration this year.