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State budget woes impact local agenda

June 25, 2009
PLYMOUTH — Once again this week the New Hampshire state budget crisis dominated the Plymouth Select Board agenda, as State Representative Suzanne Smith and Representative Mary Cooney met with the board to update members on the latest developments in the legislature.

"Suzanne and I both feel that this is the most horrific time we have ever had to put a budget together," said Rep. Cooney, "As you know, the Town will not be getting state revenue sharing money this year. We know that this is going to hurt." She acknowledged Town Administrator Paul Freitas as having been vocal in opposing this loss of monies to the municipalities.

"Rep. Cooney knows that I am one of the ones who has been grumbling," said Freitas. "I challenge the legality of what the state is doing. Where is the fairness? How are we going to compensate for the losses the state is creating for us?" In the next breath however, Freitas assured the board that Plymouth at least, will "come out all right" because of its basically strong financial condition. He said the estimated loss of $400,000 in state revenue sharing amounts to about $1 per thousand on the local property tax rate, but he felt that the Town could find ways to soften that blow considerably.

Rep Smith said that the good news is that the budget process restored the municipal portion of the Rooms and Meals tax revenue share to the towns that was deleted in initial proposals. However she said that the increase in the tax this year will go fully to the state, with the municipal portion frozen at previous levels.

Select board member Wallace "Butch" Cushing said that his "biggest fear is that the state will come after that money in the future, burdening the towns." He stated emphatically that he did not believe a sales or income tax was warranted to address the state budget crisis, as he felt that the size of state government had grown too quickly over the past few years.

But Rep. Cooney replied that in her view the state government has grown very little over recent years. "It really amounts to the number of people in need," said Rep. Cooney. "We have laws in place and those needs are growing as a result of the recession. The Republicans are fond of saying that government grew by 17 percent in the last few years, but that isn't really true. Government grew by about 3 percent. What has happened is that we have to meet increasing demands for people who are accessing services, some for the first time. By law we have to accommodate these needs."

Rep. Cooney agreed that finding additional revenue sources will be essential after the current biennial budget cycle, or the "downshifting" of the burden to municipalities will likely become too great to bear for the cities and towns.

"We do know that something drastic has to happen for the next biennial budget cycle," said Cooney. "We do need a major source of revenue for the future. We are really here to gather your thoughts about what you would like us to advocate for in the way of revenues."

Income and sales taxes and gambling were examined at length in the wide-ranging discussion that followed, but few conclusions were drawn in what Cooney described as an extremely complicated problem. "There are pros and cons to just about every argument," remarked Rep. Cooney. "The recent gambling proposal was so badly flawed that even if you wanted gambling you would not have been able to support it this time around."

Both Rep. Smith and Rep. Cooney said that they had heard from " a "fair number of constituents" who felt that a sales tax would not be too burdensome under the circumstances. Rep. Cooney remarked on the number of New Hampshire residents who appear to travel to the outlets In Kittery, Maine, despite the tax on clothing they have to pay there.

Board member Daryl Browne asked if there was any discussion in the legislature about prevention initiatives that might save money on services in the long term. Rep. Smith answered saying that many proposed prevention initiatives in the area of mental health, substance abuse and corrections were rolled into study commissions in the last legislative session, awaiting better economic times.

The lengthy discussion concluded on a somber note, with Town Administrator Paul Freitas noting that Plymouth stands to lose additional revenues from its recycling center this year because the state is advocating for surrounding towns to use the new processing facility in Concord instead of the Plymouth recycling facility. He questioned the logic of the move that he says is undermining one important source of revenue for the Town and costing other communities more money in the process.

In other business the board heard from citizens who are advocating for the installation of a crosswalk on Highland Street at the intersection with Smith Street. Board Chair Charlie Buhrman read a letter from resident Nancy Aldrich expressing her concern for the safety of pedestrians at the intersection, especially children attempting to cross the street on the way to school. Smith Street resident Brendon Hoch also spoke about the urgent need for a crosswalk at the intersection, which he said had already been approved by the Highway Safety Committee. However, Highway Superintendent Peter Furmanick said that he had some concerns about adding a non-ADA compliant crosswalk at that location and wanted to review all options. Chairman Burhman said the board is taking the matter "under advisement" and will revisit it at a future meeting.

The board also accepted a bid from Liberty International Trucks of New Hampshire and approved a purchase order for $137,897 for a new six-wheeled plow truck with a sander in the body, and approved a number of other items for the department.

The board accepted a bid from Cross Country Appraisals for a five year $147,500 appraisal contract and approved the purchase order for a $14,750 contract signing fee as part of the deal. They also approved a $4,800 Survey/Research contract with French Land Services to do a deed, boundary line and topographical study of the Police Department Property in Plymouth.

Finally, the board heard from parties to an ongoing dispute over a property issue along Route 3 The board is considering abandoning a 66 foot road at the intersection of Route 3 and River Road at the request of residents Brianna and Walter Hill who contend that use of the road by their neighbor Bruce Ahern presents a hazard to their children because it intersects their driveway and comes too close to the front of their home. Ahern opposes the abandonment of the road contending that it would cutoff potential access to his 100-acre property in the event that he should want to subdivide it for future development, thereby reducing his property value. Chairman Buhrman asked the parties to continue to negotiate with the help of Town Planner Miriam Bader and try to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution to the problem.

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