Minor amendment, but plenty of deliberation in Belmont
February 10, 2010
BELMONT — A noise ordinance and the fire department's apparatus and equipment fund brought about two of the lengthier discussions at Belmont's second-ever Deliberative Session Saturday morning, with little comment on the $6.7 million operating budget.
Approximately 80 people turned out for the session, which ended with one minor amendment to the warrant but plenty of information for voters to think about before Election Day.
Many of the warrant's 36 articles were passed over with no discussion or amendment proposals. The morning started off with debate over the use and regulation of biosolids and ended with deliberation over the purchase of the old Northway Bank building on Main Street (see separate articles on A3).
Resident Thomas Murphy, also a member of the Belmont Fire Department, proposed an amendment to Article 6, which calls for the abolishment of a longstanding Fire/Ambulance Equipment and Apparatus fund. The fund, also known as the Comstar account, currently has a balance of approximately $582,000, accumulated from ambulance billings revenues.
According to the voter's guide, the selectmen recommend discontinuing the fund and depositing all future ambulance revenues into the general fund to offset taxes. Future fire/EMS equipment and apparatus purchases would be funded through the establishment of a capital reserve fund, which the selectmen and Budget Committee are recommending in a separate warrant article.
Murphy opposed the article and said that since the fund was established in 1994, the fire department has been able to purchase half of Engine 2, a tanker, three ambulances, two department cars, and a pickup truck, without using tax dollars. His proposed amendment would have kept the fund in tact but capped the yearly deposit at $150,000, with the rest to go into the general fund.
Town Attorney Laura Spector advised that she wasn't sure whether the Department of Revenue Administration would allow the amendment, but she wasn't sure that it wouldn't. She said that if the amendment passed and DRA approved, it would go through, but if it passed and DRA did not approve, the ambulance fund would revert back to its current use.
In opposing the amendment, Selectman David Morse argued that it costs the town $820,000 per year to run the ambulance service, and by putting some of the revenues back into the general fund, it would alleviate that cost. He also says the selectmen can't manage the fund by controlling how much goes in there, which is why the account has accumulated $582,000.
Selectmen Chair Ron Cormier added that the fund brings in about $150,000 per year, so the amendment proposed by Murphy would essentially put all ambulance billing revenues into the Comstar account and leave none for the general fund.
"(The amendment) is not simply tweaking this article, it's basically annihilating it altogether," Cormier said.
Resident Barbara Binet said the fund needs regulations, and other departments should be able to share the money for capital purchases. That, however, is not possible.
"It is restricted to only the equipment of fire and ambulance apparatus, which is the reason we want each agency to have their own capital reserve fund," Cormier said.
Resident Don McClellan spoke against the amendment and in favor of abolishing the fund once and for all.
"This has been an issue for quite a few years," he said.
In a hand count, 29 people voted in favor of the amendment while 44 voted against.
The article will appear on the warrant as written.
The article establishing the capital reserve fund, originally Article 26, was moved to follow the Comstar account article and was amended to read that the fund will be established contingent on the passage of Article 6.
A petitioned warrant article submitted by resident Ken Knowlton would "make it unlawful to play any device at such a volume that it is audible at the property line," among other restrictions, between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. on Sunday. The ordinance would also restrict the noise levels of motor vehicles.
"I am not a fan of big government or frivolous laws," said Knowlton, who agreed it would be better if neighbors could work things out among themselves. "All I want is peace and quiet … How does one get peace and quiet when the town does not stand on your side?"
Susan Condodemetraky asked for clarifications on the ordinance, such as whether large trucks would be exempt and how it would be enforced.
Police Chief Vinnie Baiochetti said the ordinance is designed to prevent controllable noises, such as burnouts, donuts, loud tailpipes, in cars. Noises that come from large vehicles, such as logging trucks, can't be regulated.
Resident Linda Frawley asked what kind of priority the noise ordinance would take over other calls. Baiochetti said more vital calls will still take precedence and pointed out that while noise-related calls will be investigated, not all can be resolved.
"Just because you call the police doesn't mean anything's going to be done about it," he said, prompting laughter from the audience.
Budget Committee Chairman Ron Mitchell thanked department heads and the selectmen "for proposing such a level-funded budget." He explained that most increases are beyond the town's control, including health insurance and solid waste tipping fees.
"If everything passes, all the warrant articles, we're talking roughly 45 cents on the tax rate," Mitchell said.
Several other articles passed through the deliberative session easily, many that will add money to previously established capital reserve funds. A petitioned article asking residents to support their right to vote on changing the definition of marriage in the state constitution brought some talk of whether the town ballot was the proper forum for such an issue. This article has been placed on ballots in 150 towns in New Hampshire and is a nonbinding vote.
There was little talk on an article to start curbside recycling for $128,814, which the Budget Committee and Board of Selectmen say will reduce the amount of trash and thus the amount the town will have to pay for tipping fees. A similar article was voted down last year.