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Tax cap issue a divisive one

September 17, 2009
CLAREMONT – Regardless of how the court rules on the constitutionality of a proposed tax cap (spending limit) for Claremont, the idea won't go away and will most likely be the key issue in this November's city elections.

Tensions are running a bit high in the city these days, as opposing sides anxiously await a decision from Sullivan County Superior Court Judge Philip P. Mangones as to whether a proposed spending cap tied to the National Consumer Price Index is constitutional.

In one corner is Claremont Citizens for Lower Taxes, a group spearheaded by Cynthia Howard, and the New Hampshire Advantage Coalition. Both are advocating lower taxes across the state, with Howard's group focusing on Claremont specifically.

"We just felt that due to the high taxes in the city that it was time to limit spending," said Howard in a telephone interview earlier this week. "Some people think it limits the city council, but I don't think it does, especially

since we included language that allows the council to override the cap via a two thirds majority."

In the other corner, is Stand Up for Claremont, with Brian Rapp, who along with other city residents like state reps. Ray Gagnon and John Cloutier, both Claremont Democrats, oppose the cap idea.

"We feel it's bad fiscal policy," Rapp said in a telephone interview Monday evening. "We've witnessed people come in who want to gut the budget because they're unhappy about property taxes," continued Rapp, a firefighter and member of the planning board. "There's a time for discussion about how the state raises revenue, but a tax cap is misguided."

Rapp said he believes the call for a cap comes from the contingency of those who "don't want to see the city grow."

After being approached by fellow citizens, Rapp said he got the group started when he became aware of Howard's group's petition.

"I was concerned because it all seemed to be happening so fast," he said. "I was worried there wasn't going to be a chance for real public debate on the issue."

Now, Rapp is president of the group he co-founded along with Gagnon, and even filed a citizens' intervention "to become an official party to the court hearing" held last week in Superior Court.

"Sure, the state says the Merrimack (County) ruling doesn't set

precedent for other cities," he argued. "But the fact remains the ruling was made and it was ruled unconstitutional."

Rapp added he feels the cap "ties the hands of future councils," because "you're dealing with a situation in the present that might not be the case down the road."

But Howard disagreed, saying that because the cap would be tied to the NCPI, "theoretically they could have more to spend, if the index increases."

Howard also dismissed notions she doesn't want to see the

city grow.

"I think everyone wants to see the city grow," she said. "We just probably want to see it grow in different ways. We'd like to see more private enterprise, instead of partnerships between businesses and the city, and less bonding, such as with the parking garage."

Another member of CCLT, former city councilor Richard Dietz, said he feels the city's decision to seek a legal decision on the matter of a tax cap is "disingenuous."

Clearly they don't want to see this go through," he said during a telephone interview Tuesday night. "It seems as though they're looking for a reason to knock it down."

Dietz said the possibility of the cap being ruled unconstitutional down the road doesn't concern him.

"If the people vote on it and it passes, it sends a strong signal to the council that people are unhappy with the high taxes," he said. "If it's ruled unconstitutional down the road, then cross that bridge when you come to it. But there are plenty of places in New Hampshire where tax caps have been put into place, one of them being Franklin."

Dietz recalled an appearance by the mayor of Franklin, who told CCLT "it works great for them."

A difference in philosophy is really what it comes down to

for Dietz.

"People say you have to grow the tax base and build a new recreational center and all of these things," he said. "But I believe you grow the city by lowering taxes. That's what attracts businesses and people."

Dietz argued "if someone wants to invest in commercial real estate, or if they want to buy a house, they're not going to want to come to the city with the highest taxes in the state."

It's unclear how many current councilors support a municipal spending cap, but it is clear Councilor Jeff Goff isn't one of them.

"I'm vehemently opposed to any measure that handicaps the city," he said over the phone Tuesday night. "Even if we did cap the city budget, we still have the school and county budgets to deal with, and the city portion is the small portion (40%). To me it's all or nothing."

In Goff's mind, there's a clear alternative to implementing a spending cap: city elections.

"I think the idea of a spending cap is kind of redundant," he said. "In an elective form of government we elect our officials every two years. It's not like town government where anyone can challenge any budget item at the

annual town meeting. If you don't like what the council has done with the budget, you can vote them out."

Although he signed Howard's petition, City Manager Guy Santagate remains cautiously patient. "I believe in caps," he said over the phone Tuesday afternoon. "I've operated the city at a 3 percent cap and level funded the budget the last three years. But it's up to the court to tell us whether it's legal, and if it is, it'll be up to the voters."

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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