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Alton department heads told to keep budgets level-funded

August 18, 2009
ALTON — With both the local and national economy in recession, the board of selectmen voted Monday night to instruct Alton's department heads to keep their 2010 operating budgets level-funded.

Asking the selectmen for any directives they might want to issue before budget season begins, Town Administrator Russell Bailey informed them that 20 percent of the town's employees would be eligible for step increases next year should they choose to re-instate the salary schedule that was put on hold this year due to the economic downturn.

The cost of living assessment, which the board normally sets on July 31 each year, is currently down 1.9 percent from last year, he added.

Board Vice Chair Peter Bolster moved that there be no cost of living allowance (COLA) for town employees next year.

Addressing the issue of step increases, Selectman Pat Fuller said she would like all department heads to prepare budgets both with and without steps, with the understanding that the board will decide which option to put before the budget committee.

Fuller also moved that department heads be instructed to level-fund their 2010 operating budgets.

"The economy is really tough right now, and it's showing no signs of improving," she said.

The board voted unanimously in favor of Fuller's motion.

When Fuller moved at a later point in the meeting to approve a new contract for the town forester that included an increase in pay from $38 per hour to $40 per hour, Selectman Dave Hussey questioned whether it would be fair to grant the forester a raise when the board had voted to deny all other town employees that option.

Fire Chief Scott Williams and Police Chief Phil Smith nodded in agreement.

"You can't give him a raise," resident Steve Parker commented from the audience.

Bolster also voiced his agreement with Hussey.

Fuller withdrew her original motion, moving instead to approve the contract without the salary increase. The board voted unanimously in favor.

Fuller's husband Greg, who serves on the budget committee, pointed out during Monday night's second session of public input that town policy in the past has been to take whatever the COLA rate is on July 31 (in this case, negative 1.9 percent) and put that figure into the budget.

"So we should take money away from people?" Fuller replied, adding that the board has the authority to set a COLA anywhere from zero to three percent.

Greg Fuller said he was simply highlighting a policy that the budget committee has been reminded of on several occasions.

One check or two?

As a protest against the state legislature's decision to reduce its contribution to employee retirement funds from 35 percent to 30 percent, Fuller suggested that the board authorize Bailey to issue two monthly checks on the town's behalf — one for the 65 percent the town has traditionally been responsible for, and one for the five percent increase with the words "in protest" written on the memo line.

While he felt it made sense for the board to make some form of protest against the increase, Bolster (who also serves as a state representative for Belknap County District Five) recommended that they table the issue and discuss it in greater detail at a future meeting.

"Just do it," Hussey said, questioning the need to postpone action on Fuller's proposal.

The board voted 3-0 in favor of sending two checks, with Bolster abstaining due to his position as a state legislator.

"The Republicans made you do it, right?" Selectman Loring Carr remarked in jest, quoting a statement he said Bolster had made during a past board meeting.

Who rules the roads?

Pointing to complaints aired about the condition of two town roads during Monday night's first public input session as justification for his concerns, Carr questioned whether the board has enough of a handle on the highway department's maintenance schedule.

Editor's note: Parker approached the board Monday night to complain about the deteriorating condition of Trask Side Road, which he felt had been neglected over the past few years.

A pair of Locke's Corner Road residents came forward after Parker stating that they had complained about the condition of their road in March, and had seen nothing done yet, even though the board assured them at that time that it would follow up the matter.

Presenting the board with one of the large rocks they said had recently been left in the road by a grading crew, along with photographs of the damage it had done to one of their vehicles, they asked again when something would be done to improve the condition of the road.

Pointing out that the board of selectmen had asked voters five years ago to change the position of road agent from an elected one to an appointed one in order to give selectmen more oversight with regard to the highway department's activities, Carr said he had not yet seen the board exercise that authority.

"I'm with him," Hussey said, adding that he was "disgusted" with the current state of several town roads.

Fuller said she also agreed with Carr "100 percent," and wanted to see the board exert more control over road maintenance, but had not had any support on the board until now.

Explaining that the issue at hand from his perspective was the lack of guidance from the board, and not necessarily the personality of the town's road agent of any of his employees, Carr asked whether Bailey had been given a prioritized list of roads in need of maintenance.

Bailey replied that he did not have a list.

Speaking in defense of Road Agent Ken Roberts, Fuller explained that managing Alton's 88 miles of roads is "not an easy task."

"He does do maintenance," she added.

"Then why did we have those people here tonight?" Hussey asked, adding that the situation on Locke's Corner Road occurred because "nobody's watching" to ensure that work such as grading is done correctly.

Carr said he found it "embarrassing" for people to see the town spending $4,400 to paint double yellow lines on roads that might not even need them when residents living on Locke's Corner Road have trouble getting in and out of their driveways during mud season.

Bailey suggested that the board raise the issue of a maintenance plan during its upcoming work sessions with Roberts on the highway department's operating budget.

Bolster agreed, recommending that the board ask Roberts at that time to develop a prioritized list of roads that need work.

Stating that he felt Bolster had missed the point, Carr said the prioritized list should come from the board, not from Roberts.

Fuller objected to what she described as Carr throwing "a fit" over the issue of road maintenance and demanding that the board step in and take control of the situation when he hadn't been a part of the process in the past.

"I am now," he replied.

Hazardous waste collection Sept. 12

Bailey announced that a household hazardous waste and medicine collection will be held at the town's solid waste center on Saturday, Sept. 12, from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

ZBA seeking new members

Bailey also announced Monday night that the zoning board of adjustment is currently seeking one full-time member and two alternates.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board (serving as the town's board of health) granted a series of waivers requested by engineer Tom Varney for a new septic system on Railroad Avenue; received a draft policy regulating special events (including an application) from Bailey (who based it on a template from the Local Government Center) which it plans to take comment on at a future meeting; approved the disposal of several outdated fire department call boxes; approved an increase in the welfare department's rental allowance; and approved the withdrawal of $1,400 from capital reserve funding for a wind turbine feasibility study at the transfer station.

Editor's note: Due to technical difficulties, Monday night's meeting was not recorded for broadcast on LRPA-TV's Channel 26.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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