Selectmen's races take center stage
February 24, 2010
NEW DURHAM — With the current board of selectmen's recent decision to lay off former town administrator April Whittaker still generating intense debate as residents gathered at the library last week for New Durham's annual Candidates' Night, all eyes were on the five contenders vying for two selectmen's seats this year.
Incumbent Dave Bickford, who is up for re-election to a three-year term on the board of selectmen, said during his opening remarks that a number of residents had encouraged him to continue applying his problem-solving skills to town affairs.
Stating that his ability to research issues that are brought before the selectmen has been appreciated during his three years on the board, Bickford assured the audience that the decisions he makes are "based on facts, not emotion."
"Granted, some decisions have not been popular," he added (referring to the decision to lay Whittaker off last month). "However, they will benefit the community."
Explaining that he has utilized numerous resources, from the Local Government Center to the Stafford County prosecutor, when deciding on matters before the board, Bickford said he retired from General Electric in 2003, at the age of 51, and has been modestly successful at predicting ups and downs in the marketplace, a skill that has helped him become financially independent.
"I live frugally, and I feel government should also be frugal," he said, adding that he felt his ability to pay off the mortgage on his home and pay his credit card bills in full every month, leaving himself debt-free, makes him "the best candidate to manage the tough fiscal restraints selectmen will be faced with in the near future."
Calling budget constraints the most important issue the town presently faces, Bickford suggested that with thousands of dollars in state revenues being suspended, the town being made responsible for a portion of retirement pensions that the state used to cover, the governor calling for an addition $140 million in cuts at the state level to make for an anticipated budget shortfall, and the school district's portion of the local tax rate set to increase by 55 cents next year due to the renovation of the Kingswood complex, the time has come for the town to tighten its belt.
With town roads in need of more attention to make up for deterioration over the years, and the selectmen facing a "balancing act" on that issue due to decreasing revenues and a limit on how can be expected in property taxes, he said, other programs may have to be scaled back in order to pay for road repairs.
One way to accomplish that, he added, may be to privatize the solid waste transfer station.
"We need to start looking at making due with less," he said.
Mary McHale, who is hoping to un-seat Bickford, said she and her husband, Paddy, have grown to love New Durham during their 10 years in town.
"It took us 20 years of wandering to find our home town," she said, adding that she decided to run for the three-year seat because she believes she has the ability to "think outside the box to find real-life solutions to issues facing our community."
Her list of qualifications, she said, includes past service to the town as a deputy town clerk and tax collector and a library trustee for three years and a current position as a trustee of trust funds.
"I have served on many boards and committees that have given me a wide variety of responsibilities and knowledge," she said, adding that she also owns her own business (Fox Tale Books), is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and taught fifth grade in Arizona.
McHale informed the audience that she has three main goals — long-term fiscal responsibility, maintaining a strong capital improvement plan, and bringing a more open and honest form of government to the town.
Residents' tax dollars, she said, should be spent in the most efficient way possible, with selectmen looking at how their decisions affect the tax burden in the long term, not just the short term.
Recently, she added, the current board has made some decisions that many townspeople do not understand, such as the laying off of Whittaker, which she said ended up costing the town $3,800 a week ($1,800 to cover interim Town Administrator Jeanie Forrester's salary and $2,000 in severance pay to Whittaker, who was let go without the eight weeks' notice stipulated in her contract).
"The justification for the lay-off was to save the town money," McHale said. "Hasty decisions at 12:40 a.m. make for costly consequences."
Another example of shortsightedness on the current board's part, she said, is "the saga of the fire department skid unit," which came down to two final alternatives — mount the unit on a vehicle that was nearly 30 years old and prone to mechanical problems, or use capital reserve funds (which she said would have had no effect on the town's tax rate) to purchase a new vehicle.
"It took my opponent so many months trying to decide what to do, we almost missed the deadline FEMA gave us [for mounting the unit]," she said. "The result? A skid unit on a 30-year-old truck with mechanical problems. How much is this going to cost us in the long-term?"
Explaining her belief in a strong capital improvement plan, McHale argued that the town "should save for expensive items, not borrow to pay for them."
One of the leading factors in the current economic recession, she said, is the fact that people have borrowed money instead of saving for their purchases.
The town, she added, has tried to avoid getting into that rut by appointing a Capital Improvement Plan Committee to find out what equipment, building repairs and other long-term needs the town's departments will have in both the near- and long-term.
For example, she said, if the highway department happened to need a new plow every three years, a capital improvement plan could be developed and applied to the creation of a capital reserve fund enabling the town to put aside a third of the cost for a new plow every year.
When the time came for a plow to be replaced, she explained, the town would have the money at hand to pay for it in full without having to borrow and pay interest.
"My opponent has stated in the past that he doesn't agree with the Capital Improvement Plan," she said. "I assume he believes we should borrow large amounts of money and pay the interest on that money.
"This budget season," she added, "he was constantly trying to take more and more money out of the capital reserve funds to lower our taxes in the short run. I believe this is poor long-term planning on his part, causing our taxes to go up."
Along with her support for a capital improvement plan, McHale said she also believes in a strong ethics policy, and would step aside when there was any question of a personal or professional conflict of interest on her part.
Pointing out that she did not run for a second term as library trustee after opening her bookstore on the off chance that concerns about a conflict of interest might arise, she questioned the recent decision of Bickford and fellow Selectman Terry Jarvis to appoint Carl Woods (whose wife, Katie, is employed as the executive assistant to the police department) as an interim board member until the town election in March.
Calling the appointment of Woods a "direct violation" of the town's Ethics policy, McHale noted that the policy was approved by voters at last year's Town Meeting, "and it is not the selectmen's choice to decide where and when it applies."
"Long-term fiscal management; a strong capital improvement plan; open, honest government," she said in closing. "These are three things I hope to bring to the board of selectmen. They can only be accomplished if you vote for Mary McHale for the three-year position and Peter Rhoades for the one-year position.
"Peter and I don't always agree," she added, "but we have the capacity to work together with Selectman Jarvis to make New Durham a town we can all be proud of."
Commenting that he "wasn't expecting any of that," Bickford said in response to McHale's comments that he and Jarvis had requested an opinion from the Local Government Center on whether or not the appointment of Woods was a violation of the Ethics policy, and were told that "we're O.K." as long as Woods recuses himself from any discussions concerning the police department.
Addressing McHale's comments about the capital improvement plan, he said he felt that there are times when it's appropriate for a town to borrow money, particularly in light of the fact that municipalities are eligible for the lowest interest rates available.
He claimed, however, to have no idea where McHale had gotten the impression that he was opposed to the idea of saving for large-scale expenditures.
"That's not a line I've been going down, so I don't know where that's coming from," he said.
With regard to the skid unit, Bickford explained that when the selectmen were informed by the town's mechanic that the forestry truck could be repaired, he and Jarvis felt it would be best to listen to the mechanic's expert opinion.
That decision also saved the town "a whole pile of money," he added.
While he could not comment on the Whittaker situation due to the fact that it was a personnel matter, Bickford said he hadn't heard that Whittaker was upset by the decision.
Admitting that he had signed her most recent contract, he added that, "in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have" because of the provision calling for eight weeks' notice in the event of her termination (which he said was included at former selectman Peter Rhoades' request).
In response to Bickford's rebuttal of her claim that he favored borrowing to pay for capital expenditures over saving, McHale commented that, "We can borrow at a low rate, but interest is interest, and borrowing is borrowing."
Clarifying her stance on the decision to lay off Whittaker, she said that she and Whittaker had their fair share of disagreements, and that her opposition to the lay-off was not based on support for Whittaker.
"My problem is with the money," she said, suggesting that Bickford and Jarvis could have afforded to give Whittaker eight weeks notice, or could have laid her off in April or May of last year, instead of waiting until just a few weeks before Town Meeting, if they truly felt their decision was in the best interests of the townspeople.
"Maybe the town doesn't need it, either"
Rhoades (one of three candidates vying for the one-year seat left open by former selectman Ron Gehl's resignation earlier this year) said he was recently asked by a sixth grade student interviewing for the New Durham School's newspaper why he had decided to run.
After pondering that question for a while, he said, he realized that he had once again thrown his hat into the political arena because he felt the selectmen had made progress on a number of fronts during his three and a half years on the board, and was "disappointed in some of what's happened" over the past few months.
From the decision to lay off Whittaker to Bickford and Jarvis' decision last spring to hold a hastily-posted non-public meeting in the vacationing Gehl's absence, he said, "there have been things done that just don't make common sense" or sound financial sense.
Explaining that he and McHale had decided to campaign together because they hold similar beliefs about the direction the town should be heading in, despite past disagreements, Rhoades responded to Bickford's earlier comments about Whittaker's contract by explaining that he had, in fact, encouraged her to include an eight weeks' severance clause that would work both ways because he didn't want the town to be left in the lurch without an administrator if she decided to quit.
The last time he spoke with Whittaker, Rhoades said she was vacationing in the Southwest and "enjoying her eight weeks severance."
Commenting on the selectmen's decision last year to change the position of Recreation Director from full-time to part-time as a cost-saving measure, Rhoades said he was "fearful" that the responsibilities attached to the position cannot be fulfilled on a part-time basis, and that the town will see a request to make the position full-time again within the next year.
Highlighting some of the achievements he made during his tenure, such as his involvement with the Governor Wentworth Regional School District (including his participation in the withdrawal study) and his support for repairs to Marchs Pond Dam, Rhoades encouraged voters to side with himself and McHale next month.
Bob Kroepel, one of Rhoades' challengers for the one-year seat, said he had found the war of words between Gehl and Jarvis in the last two issues of The Baysider "very disturbing."
After reading Jarvis' recent Community Corner piece (which accused Gehl and Rhoades of conspiring to oust former town administrator Bill Herman, among other things) and a subsequent re-cap of the Feb. 15 selectmen's meeting (during which Gehl confronted Jarvis and accused her of misinforming the public), Kroepel said he started to ask himself "Do I want to be a part of this?"
After mulling over the idea of dropping out of the race because he felt he didn't need that level of controversy and negativity, he added, he came to the realization that "maybe the town doesn't need it, either."
The time has come, Kroepel said, for town officials to put aside their differences and work together to "figure out what needs to be done on behalf of the townspeople."
"The town has to go forward at some point or other," he added, describing himself as "basically honest" and stating his belief that his "low tolerance for stupidity" and high tolerance for "people who are trying hard" to serve the needs of the people would go a long way toward making up for his lack of experience in town politics.
[Editor's note: Fred March, the third candidate for the one-year seat, did not attend Candidates' Night.]
With the floor opened to questions from the audience, firefighter Kevin Jencks (whose son and daughter also serve on the fire department) came forward to question the wisdom of mounting the skid unit on a 30-year-old forestry truck that he said has been out of service roughly 30 to 50 percent of the time over the last four years.
The truck, he said, is also a standard, which not everyone knows how to drive, and is in such a state of disrepair that the thought of keeping it in service scares him.
"How are you going to feel if I have to come to you and tell you that my kids have died in it?" he said, asking Bickford why he had voted against purchasing a new vehicle and the rest of the candidates what their respective views were on the importance of ensuring the safety of fire-rescue personnel.
McHale said she considered the town lucky to have the police and fire personnel it has.
Noting that the ranks of the fire department have swelled 50 percent over the past three years, enabling the department to improve its response time and, consequently, improve public safety, she added that she "can't say enough about what we have."
"We need to keep them," she said. "We need to keep them, and we need to keep them safe."
Bickford said he had based his vote on the fact that "the person who makes those decisions" (the town mechanic) said he could make the necessary repairs to ensure the safety of the forestry truck.
Suggesting that the truck was "not exactly the same thing as an ambulance" (a comment that was met by laughter from Jencks), Bickford said the Chichester Fire Department uses a forestry truck made the same year, and in the same condition, "on a regular basis."
Agreeing with Bickford that town officials have to rely on the opinions of experts like the mechanic in order to determine what pieces of equipment are "o.k." and which ones need to be replaced, Kroepel suggested that "if the mechanic doesn't know what he's doing, we need to get rid of him."
Stating his belief that the board of selectmen's job is to "listen to the specialists, but make an independent decision," Rhoades said that although the town mechanic is superb at what he does, he has been known to overestimate his own skills in the past (as was the case with the loader at the town transfer station).
Commenting that his family owns a 1985 Volkswagen camper that he wouldn't trust in an emergency situation, Rhoades argued that with issues like workman's compensation coming into play in the event of a serious accident, the forestry truck (which also dates back to 1985) was too much of a risk to keep in operation.
"It's just too old," he added.
Planning board member Bob Craycraft asked the candidates for their thoughts on his board's recent decision to begin assessing impact fees on new construction in order to off-set large-scale expenditures within the school district.
Rhoades said he was a firm believer in impact fees, which he described as one way (along with encouraging the development of businesses) to handle the impact of school projects locally and "help the bottom line."
New Durham, he said, is "a very small voice in a large school district," and needs to look out for its own interests.
Kroepel said he didn't have enough information on impact fees to be able to answer the question.
Bickford, who currently serves as the selectmen's representative to the planning board and cast the dissenting vote on the impact fee ordinance, said he felt that with the economy in a "deep, deep recession," and no signs of improvement on the horizon, now is not an appropriate time to level an additional fee on families who might be trying to get a start on their first home.
The notion that impact fees would only be assessed on structures where children could be raised, he said, also "goes against my grain a little bit."
McHale said the town she hails from in southern California began collecting impact fees on subdivisions in the 1960s, and benefited greatly from the additional revenue.
The fees, she said, were factored into mortgage payments, and did not adversely affect homeowners.
With the possibility of another explosion of new construction within the next few years if the housing market turns around, she said, the town needs to be pro-active.
Commenting that taxpayers will end up bearing the cost of new development if developers are not asked to through impact fees, Gehl asked Bickford why he had refused to serve as chairman of the board of selectmen during the last year of his term (as has been the tradition for all out-going selectmen).
Gehl also asked the remaining candidates whether they had any apprehensions about accepting the chairmanship.
Arguing that he had never declined to serve as chairman, and had worked out a deal with Gehl concerning the position, Bickford said he had no issue with serving as board chair, but did not necessarily want the title.
"I don't need to be the top dog," he added.
Kroepel said he has been the "top dog" on volunteer board and committees for non-profits in the past, and that the position would not bother him.
While he will always make sure to have his own plan for moving forward, he said, watching people work together toward a common goal is "a wonderful thing to experience," and he would defer to the views of his fellow board members if necessary.
Rhoades, who served as chairman during his final year on the board, said he was also disturbed by Bickford's refusal to accept the position, which as "typically been the crescendo of a three-year term."
He would welcome the title again, he said.
McHale said she has served as the chairman of her business for the past few years, and had no issue with chairing the board, but would not want the chairmanship during her first year as a selectman (which she said should be devoted to learning the ins and outs of serving on the board).
"I think it's important that we all do all of the jobs that we need to do," she added, suggesting that each board member should take a turn in the chairman's seat.
Resident Jan Michaud asked Bickford why he had chosen to serve as the selectmen's representative to the planning board for a second year in 2009, when it has been the tradition among selectmen to serve only one year in that capacity.
"I'm actually glad you asked that," Bickford replied. "And the answer is, it's the law."
As he understood it, he explained, RSA 673:V (which regulates selectmen's representation on town boards and committees) states that representatives to land use boards are to remain in that position throughout their tenure as selectmen.
Amid murmurs of disagreement from the audience, Gehl said "I think you're absolutely wrong on that, Dave."
"No, you're absolutely wrong," Bickford replied before being cut off by moderator Peter Bolster.
Asked whether he wanted to comment on the matter, Kroepel urged the audience to step back and ask themselves whether Bickford serving a second year as representative to the planning board was "a threat to national security."
"If not, then maybe we can bend the rules a little bit," he added.
Rhoades commented that Bickford never mentioned the RSA the night the board discussed his desire to serve a second term as planning board representative.
McHale suggested that if state law requires board representatives to remain in place for the duration of their terms, Bickford "should have stayed on the conservation commission for three years."
Having already heard Bickford explain his qualifications for overseeing the town's finances, resident Ed Neister asked the remaining candidates to explain how their backgrounds had prepared them for the fiscal responsibilities that goes along with being a selectman.
McHale, who has owned and operated Fox Tale Books for the past four years, said her store showed a profit of 10 percent last year in an economy where most independent book stores had turned minimal profits of one percent or lower, or were preparing to close their doors.
"I haven't borrowed anything … I pay my bills," she added, explaining that she knows first-hand "what it's like" to struggle through a declining economy, and would bring that "real-life expertise" to the board.
Pointing to the fact that the town's undesignated fund balance increased during his tenure on the board, Rhoades said he understands the financial hardships taxpayers are currently facing, and was proud of the fact that he has been able to hold onto his business, Hubbington's Furniture (located in Barrington), despite the recession.
"You plan, you put away, and you keep moving forward," he said, assuring the audience that he has made Hubbington's a "tightly-run ship," and would do the same for the town.
"The IRS is not mad at me at this time," Kroepel (a self-employed professional musician) joked, assuring the audience that he was "not likely to do anything super-stupid for the wrong reasons" from a financial standpoint.
Claiming that he was confused by McHale's answer, Bickford said she had appeared before the board of selectmen on Jan. 18 and said she was losing her business.
"Apparently, that's changed," he said. "I don't know."
"I never said I was losing my business!" McHale replied, explaining that she came close to losing Fox Tale last year when her husband was out of work for several months, but managed to pull through.
"Times are tough, and I would bring that to the table," she added.
Bickford maintained that he had heard her say she was losing the store, and suggested that she review the minutes from the Jan. 18 meeting.
[Editor's note: After reviewing the minutes from the Jan. 18 meeting and speaking with the selectmen's recording secretary, McHale informed The Baysider that Bickford's depiction of events was correct. She did, in fact, state at the meeting that she was losing her business, but had intended to say that she is voluntarily closing it later this year.]
Jarvis asked Rhoades and McHale to either confirm or deny rumors that their first order of business, if elected, would be to invite Whittaker back.
Re-iterating that she has had disagreements with Whittaker in the past, McHale assured the audience that she "won't make any hasty decisions."
"I will tell you that it would probably be best for the town to get someone completely different," she said, adding that bringing Whittaker back into the fold was not her motivation for running.
Rhoades said he felt the town could not operate efficiently under a part-time administrator, and would support returning the position to full-time status.
If Whittaker was willing to consider the amount already budgeted for the position this year, he added, "I'd interview her."
McHale commented that employees who are laid off are usually asked whether they would like to return to their former position if it opens up again.
Editor's note: Candidates' Night can currently be seen in its entirety on WCTV's Channel 25.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or email@example.com