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Busy voters make big changes during Wakefield Delib session


February 04, 2010
By Daymond Steer

Staff writer

WAKEFIELD About 130 residents had a busy Saturday night amending warrant articles during a three-and-a-half hour deliberative session at the Opera House.

Residents will vote on the warrant articles at the polls at Town Hall on March 9 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Among the most interesting moment of the night occurred when voters discussed Concerned Residents of Wakefield's (CROW) petition warrant article (Article 16), which would have advised selectmen to spend no more than $75,000 on building inspection/zoning administration—the amount the budget committee allocated in the operating budget for that department. The $75,000 figure is a sharp reduction from the $112,000 selectmen originally proposed. Proponents said the cuts were necessary because construction has stalled due to the economy.

But contractor Jim Keating said he thinks the town's building department does a wonderful job and he doesn't want to see the service scaled back.

After Keating finished speaking, John Ciardi came up to the microphone to say he supported the town's decision to lay him off from his job as the Zoning and Shoreline Compliance Officer, a position he held for about three years.

"The amount of violations and complaints has been reduced dramatically," said Ciardi. "Over the last two to three months, I've found it difficult to find meaningful work. The cuts the committee made were realistic and warranted."

But resident Stan Lombara disagreed. He said Ciardi's job is important because lake homes produce 70 percent of the town's tax revenue. He said the taxes would sky rocket if the lakes went downhill.

Selectman's chair Mark Duffy said he didn't like advisory warrant articles because they tie the board's hands politically. For example, a building bubble could force selectmen to spend more than $75,000. If that happened people would still get upset even though the article was only advisory.

"You elected to put us here and we're not going to throw your tax dollars out the window," said Duffy.

Town Attorney Richard Sager proposed amending the warrant article to render it totally meaningless. Sager said the warrant article as written didn't serve any purpose anyway because it was strictly advisory. The only thing it would do is "stir up dirt," said Sager. The amendment Sager proposed trimmed the warrant article to these five words: "To see if the town."

"Why not just vote on the bottom line of the budget," said Sager. "I only see trouble if the town passes this article. I think it should be amended out of existence."

But residents Harold Theiling and Tom Dube objected to the proposed amendment because they wanted residents to have the chance to vote on it in March. Theiling added that he runs a business and knows what it's like to cut staff. Both men repeated their point about preserving the wording of other petition articles later in the night.

But in the end, most residents sided with Sager. By a secret ballot, residents voted 86 to 48 to support Sager's amendment.

CROW also proposed a similar warrant article that sought to advise selectmen not to spend more than $25,000 on the planning and zoning boards.

Ciardi returned to the microphone to say he had "deep concern" over Sager's amendment of the previous article and said he hoped this warrant article would be left alone. Ciardi said it was "unconscionable" that Sager would offer an amendment that would remove voters' right to offer an opinion.

"I would strongly recommend we don't do this twice in a row," said Ciardi.

But officials noted that the $25,000 was far less than the $43,000 the budget committee allocated for the planning and zoning.

A motion was made to edit that warrant article to the same five words as the previous article. The motion easily passed in a hand vote.

Hours later, residents finally got around to discussing the actual operating budget. Planning board chair Rod Cools made a successful motion to add back $24,000 into the budget —$14,000 would go to code enforcement (building department) and $10,000 would go to planning budget. An overwhelming majority passed the motion in a hand vote. After the changes, the proposed operating budget stood at $4,102,717, which is about $9,000 more than the default budget.

The $14,000 would restore the zoning secretary's hours back to 40 from 36, keep the building inspector's hours at 40, and pay for staff mileage. The other $10,000 would go towards obtaining contracted planning services for work such as writing the master plan.

Budget Committee member David Mankus, who was a strong proponent of the planning and building department cuts, said he'd be in favor of restoring zoning secretary Cheryl Labrie's hours. Mankus also said before the cut was made to the code enforcement budget, Wakefield had much more code enforcement manpower than the towns in the surrounding area north of Rochester.

Resident Dick Wessell questioned the need to increase the department's funding. He said a possible alternative to spending more on planning services would be to increase the size of the planning board from five members to seven. Wessell said the town of Ossipee doesn't have a planner and seems to manage with a seven-member board. The town of Ossipee has a larger population, more land area, and more construction activity.

Wessell's comments drew a strong reaction from Cools.

"In nine years on the board, I've had many residents tell me we don't want to be Ossipee," said Cools. "If the Ossipee Planning Board is doing such a great job you'd think they'd have something to be proud of."

Sharon Theiling also objected to putting the money back into the budget because taxes were already going "sky high" in her opinion. She said the town should consider making do with less services.

But budget committee chair Howie Knight said the tax rate would go down by about 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed value even if all the warrant articles pass in March (assuming revenues and home values don't change). The total amount that would be spent, $4.27 million, would still be about 4 percent less than last year's total spending.

After the deliberative session the selectmen and budget committee voted on whether or not they support the changed warrant articles. The budget committee voted 12-0 to support the operating budget and selectmen voted 2-1 to support it, with Ken Paul in the minority.

Residents also took a great deal of time to discuss the creation of three revolving funds — two were for police and one was for the public education government channel (PEG channel 3). The first (Article 17) was a revolving fund for money the police department earns from doing details (such as traffic control for utility crews working on the side of the road). Chief Ken Fifield said the money would be used to defray the cost of buying equipment, such as a new cruiser. Fifield said he expects the fund would have between $8,000 and $15,000 in it at the end of the year. The money comes from the entity needing the detail and not property taxes. The department makes a small profit after the officer and other expenses are paid. Another benefit is having the revolving fund would remove the need for some awkward accounting that's currently in place.

But some residents and budget committee members seemed skeptical of the need for this account, none more so than budget committee member Judy Nason, who expressed a distrust of capital reserve funds in general.

"I don't like this warrant article," said Nason. "I think the taxpayers have been more than fair with the police department, if there's something you need the taxpayers should have the opportunity to vote on it."

Her amendment failed, but it was by a close margin (70-49) and required a card count.

Fifield spoke about another warrant article (Article 20) asking the town for a capital reserve fund for drug forfeiture money. The fund is needed in the event that the town has a drug case prosecution and some money or property is seized. For example, if a local drug dealer's helicopter were to be put up for auction, the town could only receive the money if had a special account for it. By law, drug forfeiture money cannot be placed into the general fund or used to do tasks unrelated to law enforcement such as fixing potholes.

Similarly, the Cable Advisory Board sought the creation of an account for the collection of franchise fees, which are a small fees tacked onto cable subscribers' bills. Currently, the town does not collect franchise fees. Article 19 would only create a place to put the money if the town decides to charge cable users the fee, said budget committee member Relf Fogg who is also the cable coordinator. The amount of the franchise fee is in negotiations, Fogg said. The town could only use money generated from franchise fees to run the PEG Channel.

"We can't really have franchise fees collected by Time Warner and directed to the town without somewhere to put it," said Fogg who said the fees would probably be 2 percent of a cable subscriber's bill.

Budget Committee member Dean Giffin was concerned that article and the two for police would take the money out of the regular budget process.

But Sager said articles 18, 19, and 20, weren't funded by tax dollars and they can only be spent on specific purposes and aren't really under the budget committee's jurisdiction.

"This is the appropriate way for our cable system to raise money," said Sager. "It's also appropriate that just the cable subscribers pay the franchise fee that funds the cable channel. This is the best way to go to fund the cable channel."

State Rep. Dino Scala (R-Wakefield) explained a petition warrant article that if passed would tell the New Hampshire Legislature that the residents of New Hampshire want the ability to vote on an amendment to the state constitution that defines the word "marriage." The article would be advisory only.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law that allows same sex marriage. Scala said many of his constituents called him following passage of the gay marriage bill, asking why they weren't allowed to vote on this issue. Scala said he'd tell those constituents that New Hampshire's government structure would need to be changed through a constitutional amendment.

"I'm a firm believer that the surest form of democracy is giving the vote and the voice back to folks and not letting people at the state house make a decision of this magnitude," said Scala, who estimated a bill would cost $800 to $1,000 for the state to process.

Passing a constitutional amendment would require passage in the House of Representatives and Senate by majorities of at least three fifths in both houses. Then New Hampshire voters would need to pass the amendment by 66 percent.

Residents Barry Lockard and Becky Keating both argued that the state Legislature had already dealt with the issue of marriage. Lockard added this bill seems to be an attempt to restrict civil liberties by overturning the decision lawmakers made.

"There are no valid reasons marriage rights deny to a sexual minority," said Lockard, who offered an amendment to render Scala's warrant article useless.

Scala successfully called for a secret ballot and Lockard's amendment failed by a vote of 37 in favor to 85 against.

Other warrant articles:

Article 3: Are you in favor of the adoption of amendment No. 2 as proposed by the

Planning Board for the Town Zoning Ordinance as follows: Amendment adds Car Wash as a Permitted Use in specific zoning districts? (Majority vote required.)

Article 4: Are you in favor of the adoption of Amendment No. 3 as proposed by the

Planning Board for the Town Zoning Ordinance as follows: Amendment removes

language in its entirety from existing Article 17 Route 16 Corridor and reserves Article 17 for future use? (Majority vote required.)

Article 5: Are you in favor of the adoption of Amendment No. 4 as proposed by the

Planning Board for the Town Zoning Ordinance as follows: Amendment modifies language to existing Article 24 Personal Wireless Service Facilities by changing the maximum height of a ground mounted facility and adding a requirement to the procedure? (Majority vote required.)

Article 6: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the $50,000 to be added to the Ambulance Capital Reserve Fund. (Majority vote required.)

Article 7: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $10,000 to be added to the Bridge Construction Capital Reserve Fund. (Majority vote required.)

Article 8: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $25,000 to be added to the Fire Truck Capital Reserve Fund. (Majority vote required.)

Article 9: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $30,000 to be added to the Police Cruiser Capital Reserve Fund. (Majority vote required.)

Article 10: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $10,000 to be added to the Technology Capital Reserve Fund previously established. (Majority vote required.)

Article 11: To see if the Town will vote to establish a Capital Reserve Fund pursuant to RSA 35:1 for the purpose of Emergency Management and to raise and appropriate the sum of $2,000 to be placed in said fund and further to appoint the Board of Selectmen as agents to expend. (Majority vote required.)

Article 12: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $0 for engineering and right-of way expenses for the sidewalk project to allow safe passage for school children on Burroughs Avenue, Gary Road, Forest Street, and Taylor Way. Originally, this article had $10,000 in it for part of the town's portion of matching grant from the state. However, the state's department of revenue said $10,000 was not enough. Selectmen said it would be too expensive to fund the entire amount of the match.

Article 13: To see if the Town will vote to change the purpose of the existing Fire Truck Capital Reserve Fund to the Purchase and Equip Fire Vehicles Capital Reserve Fund. (two thirds vote required.)

Article 14: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of $35,945 to purchase and equip a fast response command vehicle for the Fire Department. (Majority Vote Required.)

Article 15: To see if the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum $11,000 for the preparation of the Historical and Cultural Chapter of the Master Plan to be completed by a Preservation Planner. Six thousand six hundred dollars is expected to be in the form of a CLG grant, and $4,400 will come from general taxation. This article is a non-lapsing article and will not expire until the project is completed or the end of the year 2012, whichever happens first. (Majority vote required.)

Article 21: To see if the Town will vote to establish a Town Forest at Tax Map 50, Parcel 2 on Pray Hill Road, under the provisions of RSA 31:110, and further to appoint the Conservation Commission as the managers of said forest under the provisions of RSA 31:112. (Majority vote required.)

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