Selectmen reconsider church plowing agreement
January 20, 2010
Public response to the selectmen's decision to table – and therefore temporarily nullify – a Memorandum of Understanding that would have had the town plowing the Gilford Community Church parking lot has prompted the board to re-open the discussion.
Board Chairman Gus Benavides clarified last Wednesday night that the board never made a final decision either way and simply held off a decision on the Memorandum of Understanding put before them by the town administrator. After much feedback, the selectmen decided to reopen the MOU discussion at a public hearing, to receive more input before making a final decision.
Controversy ensued this fall after resident and former Budget Committee member Doug Lambert pointed out that the town was still plowing the church parking lot at no cost, even though the church now owns the property and the new Gilford Youth Center. Town Administrator Scott Dunn created an MOU that would have allowed the plowing to continue, but the selectmen tabled a decision because of concerns of meshing church and state.
Stated in the MOU proposal is an agreement between the church and town stating that the town will plow the GCC parking lot, connected to the public library lot, on an as-needed-basis during winter months, in exchange for public use of the youth center space for non-sectarian purposes and town events, such as Old Home Day or a "stage" for parades. After the MOU was tabled, Reverend Michael Graham expressed his disappointment but said that the youth facilities would be open to the public at no cost, no matter what decision the selectmen made.
Benavides said Wednesday that the selectmen have absorbed as much information as possible, and although they recognize the church lot is no longer town owned, they realize the facility, the lot, and the youth center are still closely integrated and utilized by the town.
"I have known Pastor Graham for a number of years. I realize they are an exception to many churches and care about being active participants to the community and community oriented programs," said Benavides.
Over 20 residents showed up to the hearing to voice their opinions on the ongoing controversy.
Resident Sue Allen asked the selectmen to consider the benefits the community would receive in such an agreement.
"Take church out of the equation for a moment and focus on the community facility open to everyone in the community, used by Parks and Recreation. Plow to keep it open to the community," said Allen.
Alice Boucher, a former Gilford selectman, supported the plowing agreement as well. She reminded the board of GALA, Gilford – A Look Ahead, formed to plan for the future of the town in the interest of a community who wanted a community center. Although the youth center was built on church property, Boucher said it was meant to be for everyone. She added that if the center were built elsewhere, the town and taxpayers would have faced a much higher fee.
Resident and church member Doug Hill said he initially moved to Gilford almost 30 years ago because of the town's reputation for "spirit, attitude, and common good."
"This is a unique kind of arrangement. And it is used by civic organizations," said Hill. "The real key piece is the after school program. Years ago, there wasn't anywhere for kids to go at 2:30. It's true that fewer and fewer kids have parents home in the afternoon."
Hill added that not only are civic organizations utilizing the facilities, but the parking lot, adjacent to the library lot is also used by the community, and was originally designed for this purpose. He said the church vs. state controversy should be obsolete in a situation such as this, especially since church based organizations receive government grants.
School Board representative Derek Tomlinson said from a community perspective, he has seen the relationship between the church facilities and Gilford schools grow.
"We have continuous discussions with regard to Gilford Youth Center and how the school can utilize it," said Tomlinson. "The whole drive for the community center was the community. It's a wonderful addition to the community. Think of the community and think of why we're all here."
Tomlinson said $6,000 worth of plowing is still unbudgeted in the church budget now that the decision is up in the air, and had not been anticipated.
Resident Dale Dormody pointed out that the intention of creating the dual parking lot design in the first place was to make plowing easier and accommodate public parking or overflow lots for library visitors.
Although many spoke in favor of the plowing agreement between the public and the Community Church, there were a few who disapproved of the proposed agreement and did not think the town should plow the church lot. Taxpayer Armand Bolduc warned the Gilford selectmen that insurance costs would increase if they agreed to the proposed MOU.
Bolduc claimed that a particular RSA stated that taxpayer money cannot be used to plow privately property, and that town insurance premiums could "sky rocket."
"Why don't you leave it where it is, and allow someone else to have a job," said Bolduc, who said he did his homework and contacted insurance companies for information. "I'm not against the church. Our church (in Laconia) is open to everybody. If you do it for one, you'll have to do it for all. Gilford Community Church pays zero for taxes. This opens up lots at supermarkets, even driveways."
The selectmen said they have already spoken with their town attorney pertaining to legal matters and feel they do not fall right under the restrictions of this particular RSA.
The selectmen plan to discuss the matter further at their next meeting on Jan. 27 at 7 p.m., and will make a final decision then.