Cemeteries take center stage
Selectmen candidates grilled about cemetery trustees issue
February 17, 2010
ALTON — Tensions ran high among local candidates and audience members alike as the controversy surrounding the handling of the Cemetery Department's budget by Alton's cemetery trustees re-surfaced during last week's Candidates' Night.
Sponsored by the Alton Centennial Rotary Club, the annual event, held in the Alton Central School music room on Feb. 11, gave candidates for town and school district offices a chance to introduce themselves and field questions from voters.
First up last week were the three candidates vying for a pair of three-year terms on the board of selectmen.
Incumbent Peter Bolster, a resident of Alton for the past 11 years, said he has been involved in "many aspects of life" within the community, from his former position as pastor of the Community Church to his involvement with Alton Community Services and local youth programs.
Describing himself as "a much wiser selectman right now than I was three years ago," Bolster said his focus, if re-elected, would be on improving communication and cooperation among town and school boards.
The town, he said, has a great deal of potential, but sometimes falls short of that potential "because we don't cooperate."
Fellow incumbent Loring Carr (who was appointed last year to serve out the remainder of former selectman Bill Curtin's term when Curtin resigned) said that as an Alton native, he has an extensive knowledge of the town's history that "helps in the position [of selectman]."
Stating that he has enjoyed the challenges of serving as a selectman, Carr said he considers serving the public and safeguarding the rights of voters to be his primary responsibility.
Describing himself as a fiscal conservative, he suggested that, "it's time to vote for a conservative," and said he planned to focus on the town's commitment to repairing its public buildings and roads.
As a longtime member of the budget committee, Virgel MacDonald, who first moved to Alton in the 1960s, said he considered it his duty to fight for the interests of local taxpayers and "let the people decide" on important issues.
Referencing a petitioned article on this year's town Warrant asking voters to delegate the responsibilities of the cemetery trustees to the board of selectmen, resident Charles Weston asked whether MacDonald was interested in doing away with the board of cemetery trustees.
"That's correct," MacDonald replied.
Pointing out that the trustees are responsible for maintaining a number of small private cemeteries throughout town in addition to Riverside Cemetery, Weston asked each of the three candidates whether they would be willing to commit the town to the perpetual care of all local cemeteries.
MacDonald said he was aware of the trustees' commitment to other, smaller cemeteries, and did not understand "why they haven't been kept up."
"There's a lot going on down there" that the public is not aware of, he said, suggesting that the trust funds have not been managed in an economically sound way.
Carr felt that "either process" (management by the trustees or management by the selectmen) would work, and said that the point the budget committee had originally tried to make — that current full-time cemetery caretaker Mark DiVito would be more valuable to the town during the wintertime by assisting other town departments with snow removal — had been misunderstood and blown out of proportion by the trustees.
"I think it's become more of a personality issue," he said, adding that his stance on the issue was simply that the town "could use the manpower in the wintertime."
Bolster suggested that the financial management of Alton's cemetery trustees had produced "one of the best cemetery systems in the state," one in which no taxpayer money is spent on cemetery maintenance, and felt that an effort on both sides to sit down and work out their differences would be more beneficial to the community than the "attack and destroy" approach.
Shirley Lane, Chair of the cemetery trustees, suggested that all three candidates examine the laws regarding trust funds if the town does eventually supplant the trustees, pointing out that trust funds cannot be expended on private burial grounds.
Asked by moderator Mark Northridge to re-phrase her comments into the form of a question, Lane asked the candidates whether they were familiar with the state laws regulating trust funds.
"No, but you sit down and make up policies, and you learn them," MacDonald replied.
Bolster felt the laws were "very clear," and that the selectmen would "have to learn a lot and follow the law."
Carr said he was aware of the prohibition against using trust funds to maintain private cemeteries, and re-iterated his belief that the issue at hand was making "more efficient use of our money" by shifting DiVito around to other departments during the winter months.
Weston returned to the microphone to ask whether the three candidates would reimburse the cemetery trust funds for the use of DiVito's services by other departments.
Carr said any money used to compensate DiVito for work not associated with cemetery maintenance would be taken from the town's operating budget, and not from the trust funds.
"Originally, we tried to set it up that way," MacDonald said, explaining that the trustees' decision to offer DiVito a five-year contract "put a damper" on the budget committee's proposal to loan the caretaker out to other departments at their expense during the winter.
Stating that she had been told by the selectmen that the contract was not valid, but had not yet been given any documentation proving that, Lane asked Carr whether it was true.
Carr said the selectmen had asked Town Administrator Russell Bailey to forward Town Attorney Jim Sessler's opinion on the contract to the trustees, and promised to follow up on the matter.
Bolster confirmed that in Sessler's opinion, the contract was not legally binding.
Explaining that the issue, in his eyes, was not so much the contract itself as "the way it came about," MacDonald said his concern was that the town might have to step in and take over full responsibility for management of the cemetery trust funds, as it was forced to after mismanagement virtually drained the trust funds set aside for the Gilman Museum.
Commenting that the budget committee had removed 30 percent of DiVito's salary and benefits from the Cemetery Department's budget while at the same time proposing to give him 30 percent more work by shifting him around to other departments during the winter, trustee Karen Poor said she had yet to see any money built into those departments' budgets for the purpose of compensating him.
"To quote [the film] 'Jerry Maguire,' show me the money, sirs," she said, asking what assurances the three candidates could offer that DiVito would be properly compensated.
Explaining that the selectmen would have to consider honoring the spirit of the decision voters made at this year's town deliberative session to put the money cut from DiVito's salary back into the bottom line of the operating budget, Bolster said the trustees ultimately have the right to spend their funds as they see fit.
"If people don't like the job you're doing, they can vote you out," he added.
Pointing out that the amount cut by the budget committee represented three months' worth of wages for DiVito (the winter months, when the original plan was to loan his services out to other departments), Carr explained that if the amended bottom line passes at the polls next month, the restoration of DiVito's salary would still be subject to a 90-day transfer period.
MacDonald said the budget committee had been assured by the board of selectmen that the cost of loaning DiVito out would be absorbed by the departments that made use of his services.
Trustee candidates take center stage
The absence of Raymond Howard (who was unable to attend Candidates' Night due to a prior commitment) made for a quiet reaction to the three candidates competing for a three-year term as cemetery trustee.
Howard's wife, Barbara, read a statement on his behalf informing voters that he grew up in southern New Hampshire, and graduated from Timberlane Regional High School.
After starting his first business in 1972, Howard moved the business and his family to Alton in 1993, and said in his statement that he grew to love the town and the people in it.
"I am committed to seeing that the cemetery trust is managed wisely," he wrote. "With 38 years of experience being self-employed and running my own business, I feel qualified and capable of doing this work for the citizens of Alton.
"I would like you to consider giving me your vote of confidence on election day," he added, encouraging residents to contact him at his home number (875-4115) with any questions.
Raymond Johnson, a resident of Alton since 2005 who said he has never held political office before, graduated from the Wentworth Institute with a degree in Industrial Engineering, and worked in the natural gas distribution industry, becoming a consultant after his retirement.
Suggesting that his background and work experience could benefit the town, Johnson said he felt he could make cost-effective improvements to the management of the town's cemeteries, and would bring a fresh perspective and new ideas to the board of trustees.
Incumbent Edward Lyons, a landowner in Alton for the past 25 years and full-time resident for the past 16, retired from the Wilmington, Mass. Fire Department and said he had filed for re-election because he enjoyed his time as a trustee.
Asked by Lane where he saw the need for improvement in the maintenance of local cemeteries, Lyons said he did not see "how much more could be done."
Johnson said he had some ideas for enhancing the appearance of Riverside Cemetery, adding that a memorial garden for residents who choose to be cremated was something he would be "interested in."
Informed by Northridge that she could not pose a question to Howard's wife, Poor instead directed the question to the other two candidates, asking whether they were aware that Howard had signed the petition calling for the board of cemetery trustees to be dissolved.
Johnson and Lyons said they were not aware of that fact.
Editor's note: Due to the length and intensity of the discussion surrounding the four candidates vying for a pair of seats on Alton's School Board this year, we have decided to publish our re-cap of that portion of Candidates' Night in next week's issue.
The event can currently be seen in its entirety on LRPA-TV's Channel 26.
Copies are also available on both VHS and DVD at the Gilman Library.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or email@example.com