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Fire department proposal sails through in Barnstead



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TOWN TREASURER JEANNIE TERRY bids farewell to out-going Selectman Gordon Preston with a hug during Barnsteadís annual Town Meeting on March 13. Preston was honored at the start of the meeting with tributes from his colleagues on the board and the office staff at Town Hall. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
March 16, 2010
BARNSTEAD — Barnstead's fire department is preparing to enter a new era at the end of the month, with voters at this year's annual Town Meeting on March 13 throwing their support behind a proposal to dissolve Barnstead Fire-Rescue, Inc. (BFRInc.) and, for the first time, bring the department's finances under municipal management.

Article 5 on the 2010 town Warrant asked voters to complete the transition to a municipally managed fire department that began at last year's Town Meeting by raising and appropriating $40,000 for the purpose of paying off the mortgage on the Parade Road fire station; transferring ownership of BFRInc.'s buildings and equipment to the town; changing the method of financing the fire department in accordance with RSA 154:1-a; and ratifying the final agreement between the board of selectmen and BFRInc. (which calls for BFRInc. to dissolve on March 31 and re-form as something akin to a firemen's association).

"It's taken us five years to get to this point," Selectman Jim Barnard (a former member of the Fire Department Study Committee) said, explaining that with $104,172 due on the mortgage for the Parade Road station, the selectmen were asking for $40,000 from local taxpayers, with the remaining $64,172 to be withdrawn from the town's undesignated fund balance.

In an effort to further reduce the burden on taxpayers, he added, the selectmen had also agreed to reduce their budget by $36,758 (the amount set aside this year for insurance on BFRInc.'s vehicles) if Article 5 were to pass.

"It's close to being a wash," he said, explaining that the total amount voters would be asked to raise if the article passed would be $3,242.

Resident Brandy Kraft-Lund asked whether the selectmen or fire department officials had discussed providing better coverage for the North Barnstead area by building a new station to cut down on response times once the department falls under municipal control.

Barnard said current Fire Chief George "Rusty" Krause had mentioned putting a new station in "a little further north."

Resident Rick Simoneau asked a representative from BFRInc. to step forward and share the organization's thoughts on Article 5.

"It's a good day for us, but it's also a sad day," BFRInc. President Nick Rott replied, stepping to the microphone.

The organization's membership feels that it has done a good job, "but this seems to be the best move for the town," he added, urging voters on BFRInc.'s behalf to support the proposal.

Resident Dave Finethy asked what condition the Parade Road and Center Barnstead fire stations are currently in, and whether the selectmen were aware of any upcoming expenses associated with them.

Barnard said a roof leak would need to be repaired and electrical upgrades made at the Center Barnstead station (located on Route 126), adding that money had been set aside in the budget to address those issues.

Krause confirmed that a roof repair or replacement and electrical system upgrades would be needed, explaining that the Center Barnstead was originally designed to house equipment only, and was not built to house full-time staff.

While he favored the proposal, resident Jim Weidner said he felt that a new fire station or public safety building was "much needed" in the northern part of town, and suggested that the selectmen look into the matter.

Out-going Selectman Gordon Preston argued that for the next two years, the town needs to focus on getting through the recession before considering any major projects.

Calling for a final vote on the article, Preston's wife, Kathy, thanked the fire department for its past service to the town, prompting a burst of applause from the audience.

Article 5 passed overwhelmingly, with only a few scattered voices voting in the negative.

Budget sparks discussion

With voters approving Article 5, selectmen followed through on their promise to trim the proposed 2010 operating budget by $36,758, dropping their original recommended bottom line (presented to voters in Article 30) from $3,345,548 to $3,326,510.

Before the amended figure was officially submitted for discussion, however, Moderator Bill Gosse stepped away from the podium to request that $5,000 be added to the Elections/Registration budget in order to purchase a "back-up" ballot machine.

During the previous Tuesday's town election, he explained, the ballot machine currently in use experienced mechanical problems early in the morning that resulted in a voter being allowed to submit a second ballot.

When the ballots were counted at the end of the day, Gosse said, a total of 703 had been cast in the town election, but only 701 in the school district election.

While he could account for one of those disputed ballots, he said, the other one remains a mystery, making it necessary to hold a re-count on a ballot question asking voters to approve revisions to the sign ordinance (which was defeated by one vote, 320-321).

"I can't have that happen during a major election," such as a Presidential election, he said, explaining that another mechanical failure would wreak havoc given the number of voters who typically turn out on such occasions.

With both the selectmen and the budget committee agreeing to Gosse's request, the revised bottom line figure was set at $3,331,510.

Krause came forward to call the audience's attention to what he described as a "significant change in this year's budget" — the $45,024 set aside to cover a full-time fire chief's salary and benefits.

Calling the creation of a full-time chief's position "a significant landmark in the history of this town," Krause objected to what he saw as the selectmen's attempt to bury it in the budget, arguing that it should have been brought forward in the form of a Warrant article, with voters given the right to affirm it.

The selectmen noted, with confirmation from Gosse, that voters at last year's Town Meeting had authorized them to look into the creation of a full-time fire chief's position.

Krause argued, however, that the article submitted last year addressed only the legal mechanism for appointing a full-time chief, and said nothing about the position itself.

Barnard argued that the selectmen had included the full-time chief's salary as a line item in the budget "for everyone to see," and were not trying to hide anything.

Resident Mark Fraser voiced his agreement with Krause.

"I have the feeling that we're missing a step here," he said, suggesting that in view of the contracting economy, the selectmen remove the chief's salary from the budget and re-evaluate their requirements for the position over the next year.

Asked by Gosse to address the issue of how the full-time chief's salary came to be included in the budget, Deputy Chief Shawn Mulcahy (who served on the fire chief search committee) explained that the committee had interviewed 14 applicants and narrowed the field down to the six most promising candidates (one of whom later dropped out).

The five remaining finalists were put through a rigorous testing process to determine their physical fitness for the position, he said, adding that he planned to present the finalists to the board of selectmen for review the following Tuesday night (March 16).

Asked by resident Tim Conrad whether the search committee's meetings were open to the public, the selectmen replied that they were.

"So, this was not a hidden process?" Conrad asked.

"Hardly," Gordon Preston replied, explaining that while there was no "to-the-dollar" amount available for the full-time chief's salary, the search committee had given the selectmen a "bracket" based on the current market.

Pointing out that the new chief would also be medically qualified, Preston suggested that "the finances will off-set themselves."

Explaining that the chief's exact salary and benefits package would be ironed out through the negotiating process, Mulcahy estimated that for a qualified candidate, the town would be looking at a base salary "pushing $60,000" for a full year.

One of the benefits associated with the new position, he said, is the fact that the full-time chief would also be qualified as an EMT and ambulance operator, giving the town a "back-up" in the event that the designated ambulance operator was called away to deal with a family emergency.

Asked by Conrad whether candidates for the full-time chief's position would be subject to background checks and a probationary period, Barnard answered "yes" to both questions.

The amended operating budget of $3,331,510 passed.

The following articles also met with the approval of voters:

-Article 6, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $30,000 for the purpose of purchasing a fully marked and outfitted police vehicle.

[Editor's note: Preston announced that as a member of the Suncook Valley Towns, Barnstead will be part of a collective bid for nine police cruisers, and may not spend the entire $30,000. Any money remaining in the appropriation, he said, will be returned to the town's general fund at the end of the year to off-set taxes.]

-Article 7, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $30,036 in support of storm damage mitigation projects on Holmes Road, Province Road, and Dam Site Road (a change in wording from the original article, which named Parade Road as the final designated project).

-Article 8, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $10,000 in support of milfoil treatment on Suncook Lake and the Suncook River.

-Article 9, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $10,000 to be placed in the Bridge Construction Capital Reserve Fund.

-Article 10, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $20,000 to be placed in the Highway Department Heavy Equipment Capital Reserve Fund.

-Article 11, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $15,000 to be placed in the Fire Truck Capital Reserve Fund.

-Article 12, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $5,000 to be placed in the Town Hall Computer Support Expendable Trust Fund.

-Article 13, which asked voters to discontinue the Cistern Capital Reserve and transfer its remaining balance into the general fund.

-Article 14, which asked voters to create a new expendable trust fund for cistern construction and maintenance, and to transfer the original Cistern fund's $3,700 balance into the new fund.

-Article 15, a petitioned article asking voters to raise and appropriate $5,000 to be placed in the Historical Society Building Capital Reserve.

-Article 16, which asked voters to convey a property acquired by tax deed in July of 2005 to the Stanley family.

-Article 17, which asked voters to convey another property acquired by tax deed in July of 2005 to the Evans Trust.

-Article 19, which asked voters to convey a property acquired by tax deed in January 2003 to Richard Healey and Joseph Laurino.

-Article 20, which asked voters to re-classify a portion of Hartshorn Road from Class VI to Class V.

-Article 22, which asked voters to re-configure a 50-foot right-of-way on Colony Drive.

-Article 23, which asked voters to direct the board of selectmen to pursue regionalization with surrounding towns for the purchase of products and services.

-Article 24, a petitioned article asking voters to send a resolution to local legislators calling for a referendum on an amendment to the state Constitution defining "marriage."

The following articles failed:

-Article 21, which asked voters to change the position of town treasurer from elected to appointed.

-Article 25, a petitioned article asking voters to restrict town and school district officials to holding only one position at a time, whether elected or appointed.

-Article 26, a petitioned article asking voters to change the position of health inspector from appointed to elected (which Gosse said would violate state statutes, and could therefore not be taken under consideration).

-Article 27, a petitioned article asking voters to limit selectmen and members of the planning and zoning boards to no more than two consecutive terms (which Gosse said would violate state statutes, and could therefore not be taken under consideration).

-Article 28, a petitioned article asking voters to change the position of building inspector from appointed to elected (which Gosse said would violate state statutes, and could therefore not be taken under consideration).

-Article 29, a petitioned article asking voters to send a resolution to New Hampshire's Congressional delegation calling for a new investigation into the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Article 18, which would have asked voters to convey a property acquired by tax deed in July of 2004 to Lynn Ordway, was withdrawn by the selectmen due to the fact that not all of the outstanding taxes and fees on the property have been paid in full.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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