Voters air concerns on economy, abuse of power
February 09, 2010
ALTON — Concerns about the economy and skepticism about the motives of town officials were widespread among voters during last week's marathon deliberative session on the town of Alton's 2010 Warrant.
With a number of articles sparking intense debate, from the proposed 2010 operating budget to a proposal to create a walking path along an abandoned railroad corridor on Depot Street, the 93 registered voters (out of a total of 4,024) who attended the Feb. 3 deliberative session labored into the early hours of Feb. 4 to finalize the Warrant in preparation for the town election on March 9.
Resident Dave St. Cyr questioned the wording of Article 11, which asks voters to set aside $84,265 from the town's undesignated fund balance (with the remaining $19,235 to come from a federal equipment grant) toward the purchase of three new police vehicles to replace Units 22, 23, and 24, which Police Chief Ryan Heath said all have well over 100,000 miles and are nearing the end of their mechanical life.
How, St. Cyr asked, was it possible for the board of selectmen to state that no money would be raised from taxation when the $2.5 million available in the fund balance had to have come from tax revenue "at some point?"
"You're telling me that the town is not obligated to give that money back to the taxpayers?" he asked.
Selectman Pat Fuller explained that the state Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) requires all municipalities to carry a fund balance totaling at least five to 17 percent of their operating budgets.
That money, she said, is returned to taxpayers in the sense that selectmen often use it to off-set increases in the town's portion of the local tax rate.
Recalling that Selectmen Peter Bolster had informed voters at last year's deliberative session that the board did not want to touch the fund balance at that time due to the recession, resident Reuben Wentworth commented that "last time I checked, the economy hasn't gotten any better."
Pointing out that the back taxes owed to the town total $1,707,098 ($800,000 shy of what the fund balance currently holds), Wentworth suggested that the rising tide of unpaid tax bills "could swallow up that fund if you had to use it."
Wentworth also confronted the selectmen over the wording of Article 17, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $25,000 to be added to the Recreation/Grounds Maintenance Capital Reserve Fund.
After learning that the board planned to put the money toward the purchase of a $34,000 Voltec implement carrier for use in plowing sidewalks during the winter and landscaping in the summer, Wentworth argued that they should have stated their intention within the article.
"The article doesn't say you're buying anything," he said, questioning how the selectmen had managed to negotiate a $34,000 purchase price for a machine that he felt should have been valued at around $100,000 based on the description provided by Selectman Dave Hussey.
"I feel like you're hiding something," he added.
Hussey explained that he buys and sells heavy equipment for a living, and was able to negotiate a deal on the town's behalf for the implement carrier, which has only seen 65 hours of use, and was slated to be dismantled.
"It is a good piece of equipment," he said.
Selectman Loring Carr added that the board hadn't finalized the wording of Article 17 until the previous week.
The proposed purchase of the implement carrier, Carr said, was based on a recommendation from the town's capital improvement plan committee, and on a recent state Supreme Court decision (stemming from a lawsuit filed against the town of Tilton) that all New Hampshire cities and towns must make their sidewalks passable for wheelchair-bound residents during the winter in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"I've never seen an argument so much over trying to save money," he added.
Pointing out that the Tilton lawsuit had come about because of the town's refusal to properly clear its sidewalks despite complaints, Wentworth argued that, "the town of Alton has never refused to repair anything."
"You're using too many tactics on me that I don't agree with," he said, adding that he planned to vote against Article 17 because he felt the selectmen had gone about presenting it "the wrong way."
With selectmen's Chair Steve McMahon assuring the audience that "we're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," resident and State Rep. Laurie Boyce proposed an amendment to the article specifying that the money would be used to purchase a Voltec implement carrier.
Town Attorney James Sessler advised the audience, however, that with the town having already voted to establish the reserve fund for the purpose of buying maintenance equipment, with the selectmen as agents to expend, the DRA might not accept such a specific amendment.
Boyce's amendment ultimately failed.
"I can't understand why you'd want to take that away"
Article 14, which asks voters to adopt the provisions of RSA 41:14-a (which would authorize selectmen acquire or sell land and buildings on the town's behalf, provided they submit any such acquisition or sale to the planning board and conservation commission for review), drew skeptical reactions from some residents who felt that its passage would give the selectmen too much power.
Asked by resident Bob Longabaugh what process would be in place if voters were to reject the article, Carr said any sale of acquisition of land would have to be brought before voters in the form of a Warrant article.
Resident and school board member Jeff St. Cyr asked whether the selectmen currently had any plans to buy or sell property.
Carr replied that the board had been looking into the possibility of selling off some town-owned lots in order to get them back onto the tax rolls, but hadn't come up with a final list yet.
St. Cyr said he was leery of granting selectmen the authority to sell land that the town might find itself in need of in the future.
Commenting that as a lifelong resident of Alton, he had seen the townspeople gradually lose many of their rights over the years, Wentworth urged voters not to support Article 14.
"You'd be leaving the sale of prime real estate up to five people, a committee, and one board," he said.
Disputing Wentworth's claim that the properties the selectmen were considering selling off were "prime real estate," Carr said they were, in fact, small lots (some of them landlocked) that the board felt were not necessary to hold onto when they could be generating revenue.
Stating that he had supported the school district's proposal last year to purchase the Twombly property, resident Keith Dube said that although he was disappointed not to see that article pass, he felt it was important for the townspeople to retain their right to vote on the sale or purchase of land.
Asked by resident Jim Bureau to put the process mapped out in the RSA into "layman's terms," Carr explained that any proposal the selectmen came up with would be brought to the planning board and conservation commission for review, and would then be presented to the public at two separate hearings, after which voters would have seven to 14 days to petition for the sale or purchase to appear on that year's Warrant.
Dave St. Cyr voiced his concern at the fact that some of the properties under consideration were landlocked, which he feared would make for a "limited audience" of potential buyers.
Wentworth re-iterated his belief that by passing Article 14, voters would be giving the board of selectmen an "open door" to buy and sell property without the approval of the townspeople.
"I can't understand why you'd want to take that away from us," he said, questioning the board's motives for proposing the article and noting that attendance at public hearings has historically been dismal.
Operating budget increased
During discussion of Article 20, which originally asked voters to raise and appropriate the town's proposed operating budget of $5,988,088, Fuller proposed an amendment increasing the bottom line to $5,999,649 — a motion that she said was designed to restore the $11,561 budget committee members cut from the highway department's emergency management budget.
Citing the recent examples of the massive floods that struck in the spring of 2007 and 2008, Fuller described Alton as a "disaster-prone" town, and suggested that it would be unwise not to budget appropriately for emergencies.
Defending Fuller's amendment, Highway Agent Ken Roberts noted that a total of 33 roads washed out during the last flood.
"Where do you think that money [to repair them] comes from?" he asked.
Pointing out that even with a default budget, town officials managed to hold onto a surplus of $150,000 to $175,000 last year, budget committee Chairwoman Karen Painter suggested that the selectmen could have transferred a portion of that surplus into the highway department's budget to off-set the cuts, rather than proposing an increase to the operating budget.
Budget committee member Virgil MacDonald agreed, commenting that the $10,000 budgeted for emergency road reconstruction in 2008 "didn't even cover a 10th of the flood damage."
"You can't budget for a worst-case scenario … that's not what a budget's for," committee member Steve Miller said, suggesting that even the $11,000 Fuller had tried to add back into the budget wouldn't be nearly enough to cover the damage from a major natural disaster.
Following the failure of Fuller's amendment, cemetery trustee Karen Poor proposed an amendment increasing the bottom line to $6,008,103, a move aimed at restoring the $20,015 cut from full-time cemetery caretaker Mark DiVito's salary.
Refuting the budget committee's position that there is not enough work at the town cemetery during the winter months to justify retaining DiVito in a full-time capacity, Poor listed his winter job responsibilities and claimed that he has saved the town a considerable amount of money.
"We're lucky to have him," she said.
MacDonald explained that after learning from the cemetery trustees that they would have to begin requesting assistance from taxpayers next year, the budget committee had decided to ease the burden on the cemetery budget by shifting DiVito around to other departments to assist with plowing and maintenance during the winter, enabling the trustees to build up their own funds.
The day after that decision was made, however, he said, the trustees offered DiVito a five-year contract stating that he could only be employed by the cemetery department.
Shirley Lane, Chair of the cemetery trustees, replied that the contract does not prohibit other departments from utilizing DiVito's services, as long as they compensate him appropriately.
Noting that Alton currently has one of the lowest tax rates in the state, resident Mike Pinard described the budget committee's claim that it was acting in the best interests of townspeople by cutting DiVito's salary as "political hocus pocus."
Suggesting that the committee was "not in touch" with what it takes to run a town department, Pinard said he did not consider it prudent to "whittle around" and demand that department heads do more with less.
Miller said his issue with the cemetery department's budget was the four percent increase originally proposed by the trustees.
"There has to be some serious money management there," he said, suggesting that the trustees would not be able to sustain $96,000 operating budgets for long without making a substantial dent in the corpus (or principal) of their trust funds.
Poor's amendment passed by a margin of 54-24, bringing the revised bottom line of the operating budget to $6,008,103.
[Editor's note: If voters reject the proposed operating budget at the polls in March, the default budget would be set at $6,025,816.]
"We're not in Wolfeboro"
Article 38, which asks voters to support the development of a non-motorized biking and walking trail along a stretch of town-owned property from Depot Road to the traffic light at the entrance to Hannaford on Route 28, met with strong resistance from abutters who viewed it as a land grab by the board of selectmen.
Questioning Bolster's claim that no tax money would be raised to support the creation of the walking path, abutter Heather Corriveau asked what the phrase "town resources" meant in the context of the final sentence of the article (which states that the cost of project is to be funded through donations, with labor a combination of volunteers and town resources).
Bolster explained that town employees and department heads often donated their time and equipment toward the construction of the B&M Railroad Park at no additional cost to the town, and that the same would hold true during construction of the walking path.
Claiming that she and her fellow abutters had not been heard during previous meetings with selectmen, Corriveau asked who would be liable if someone were to fall and injure themselves on the path.
Bolster replied that the town's insurance policy would cover any injuries, adding that the situation would be no different that someone falling on a sidewalk.
Addressing the comparison Bolster made in his initial presentation on the article between the proposed walking path and the recent dedication of a 173-acre conservation area in the center of Wolfeboro, Corriveau commented that, "We're not in Wolfeboro … we live in Alton."
"Why would anyone want to walk in back of peoples' houses to get to the Circle?" she asked.
Stating that she was not convinced of the town's ownership of the land in question, abutter Kim Patterson commented that the majority of her fellow abutters were "against this," and not the minority, as Bolster had suggested earlier.
Voicing her concerns about the town's proposal to put up a barrier between abutters' homes and the path, and about the possibility of vandals using the path as a way to access abutters' homes, another abutter commented that she didn't buy her home "to stay up all night looking for who's going to be coming down a path."
Asked by Bolster to confirm whether he had verified the validity of the town's deed to the property in question, Sessler said that although he did not have the information in front of him, he had previously informed the board that they had been granted ownership to the land by the state Department of Transportation.
Responding to Corriveau's question of who would want to utilize the path, Longabaugh said he and his wife, MaryBee, who enjoy taking daily walks for exercise, would welcome it.
Claiming that the deed to his property contradicted the selectmen's claim to ownership, abutter Marc Laurion commented that the path would not provide much exercise for walkers or joggers given the fact that it could be covered in roughly three minutes.
"It's such an impractical thing," he said, suggesting that the sidewalks in the Village area should be repaired if they are not fit to walk or jog on.
With Miller proposing an amendment that would have changed the wording of the article by asking voters not to support the development of the walking path, Roberts asked whether the failure of the revised article would give the selectmen the authority to create the path anyway.
Sessler confirmed that it would, and Miller withdrew his amendment in order to give the abutters an opportunity to bring forward another amendment — "To see if the voters will support the development of a non-motorized bike/walking path from Depot Road to Route 28 by the traffic light. The projected cost must be funded by donations and labor a combination of volunteers and donors only."
Commenting that the selectmen could legally have begun construction of the walking path, Bolster said the board wanted to put it out to the townspeople, and let them decide.
"Pure democracy," he said.
Explaining that the deeds abutters hold through Belknap County do not match the deed issued to the town by the DOT, Corriveau urged voters not to establish a precedent for what she described as a disregard for property rights on the part of the selectmen by approving the article.
"This isn't just about the abutters," she said. "This is about anybody who owns property in the town of Alton."
Under pressure from audience members who argued that the townspeople should be allowed to vote on the article in its original form, the abutters ultimately withdrew their amendment.
The Warrant at a glance
The remaining articles discussed and finalized during last week's deliberative session include:
-Article 10, which asks voters to discontinue the Town Buildings Capital Reserve Fund, the Library Additions Capital Reserve Fund, the Fire Department Radios Capital Reserve Fund, and the Portable Pump Capital Reserve Fund, all of which are now defunct.
-Article 12, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $28,000 to be added to the Landfill Closure Capital Reserve Fund.
-Article 13, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $20,000 to be placed in the Benefit Pay Expendable Trust Fund to cover the cost of retirement benefits for long-term town employees.
-Article 15, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $10,000 to be added to the Solid Waste Equipment Capital Reserve Fund.
-Article 16, which asks voters to authorize the water commissioners to enter into a four-year lease/purchase agreement in the amount of $40,000 for the purpose of leasing a new utility truck, and to raise and appropriate $10,000 for the first year's payment, with the total cost to be borne by water system rate payers (though Commissioner Richard Quindley assured the audience that rate payers would see no increase as a result of the lease).
-Article 18, which asks voters to establish a new capital reserve fund for milfoil treatment, and to raise and appropriate $7,500 to be placed in the new fund.
-Article 19, which asks voters to establish a new Senior Center capital reserve fund, and to raise and appropriate $15,000 to be placed in the fund.
-Article 21, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $128,597 for the purpose of funding ambulance personnel wages, supplies, and equipment purchases, with the full amount to be withdrawn from the Ambulance Operation Fund.
-Article 22, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $28,000 to upgrade the town fire boat from one to two engines, with the full amount to be withdrawn from the undesignated fund balance.
-Article 23, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $10,000 to be added to the Bridge Replacement Capital Reserve Fund.
-Article 24, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $50,000 to be added to the Highway Equipment Capital Reserve Fund, with the full amount to be withdrawn from the undesignated fund balance.
-Article 25, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $750,000 to be added to the Highway Reconstruction Capital Reserve Fund, with $175,049.85 to come from the Highway Development Block Grant and the remaining amount to be raised by taxation.
-Article 26, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $8,996 in support of the Community Action Program.
-Article 27, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $7,951 in support of VNA Hospice.
-Article 28, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $5,100 in support of Community Health and Hospice.
-Article 29, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $2,280 in support of the American Red Cross.
-Article 30, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $10,000 in support of Alton Community Services.
-Article 31, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $284 in support of the Medication Bridge Prescription Program.
-Article 32, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $1,500 in support of New Beginnings.
-Article 33, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $7,500 in support of Genesis.
-Article 34, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $2,000 in support of Caregivers Transportation.
-Article 35, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $500 in support of the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program.
-Article 36, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $2,400 in support of the Appalachian Mountain Teen Project.
-Article 37, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $2,500 in support of Child and Family Services.
-Article 39, a petitioned article asking voters to change the purpose of the Town Beach Capital Reserve Fund established in the hope of finding suitable land for a new town beach by expanding its use to allow for the maintenance of the existing town beach at Alton Bay and Harmony Park.
-Article 40, a petitioned article spawned by the controversy surrounding the contract offered to DiVito, which asks voters to delegate the duties and responsibilities of the cemetery trustees to the board of selectmen.
-Article 41, a petitioned article stemming from the selectmen's decision last year to award themselves and other town department heads a three percent cost of living allowance (COLA), in accordance with the raises budgeted for other town employees, which asks voters to impose a new restriction stating that voter approval is required for any change in selectmen's salaries.
-Article 42, a petitioned article asking the townspeople to send a resolution to state officials calling for a referendum on an amendment to the state Constitution that defines marriage.
-Article 43, a mechanism for hearing the reports of any committees, boards, trustees, commissions, officials, agents, or concerned residents that wish to come before voters.
Voters will have the final say on all Warrant articles when they head to the polls on Tuesday, March 9.
Editor's note: Article 1 (the election of town officers) and Articles 2 through 9 (a series of proposed amendments to the town's zoning ordinance that had already been presented to the public during recent planning board hearings) were not discussed during the deliberative session, but will appear on the ballot.
The deliberative session can currently be seen in its entirety on LRPA-TV's Channel 26 (check Channel 24 at the top of each hour for program listings). Copies are also available on both VHS and DVD at the Gilman Library.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org