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Bridgewater officials address Refuse District concerns

September 08, 2010
HEBRON— The Community Hall of the Hebron Church was filled with both Hebron and Bridgewater residents Tuesday night.

The large crowd gathered to hear a presentation by members of the Bridgewater Board of Selectmen in response to concerns that have been raised by Hebron Select Board members about the high costs of operating the small scale incinerator at the Hebron-Bridgewater Refuse facility and other management issues.

Hebron will hold a public hearing this evening, Sept. 9, to discuss a proposal by the Hebron selectmen to withdraw from the Hebron-Bridgewater Refuse District because of the ongoing conflict between the towns.

A Special Town Meeting in Hebron to vote on the proposal has been called for Tuesday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Community Hall.

Tuesday's two-and-a-half-hour meeting, ably facilitated by Bridgewater's Andy Denton, covered a wide range of issues. After a presentation by Bridgewater Select Board Chair Hank Woolner and Terry Murphy, accompanied by an 11-page written response and multiple appendices with charges and graphs, residents of both towns were able to ask questions and offer suggestions.

Hebron Select Board members did not attend the meeting.

Residents were also able to hear directly from the District Auditor Cheryl Pratt, from the firm of Plodzik and Sanderson, who read extensively from her draft management report, part of her 2009 audit that has not yet been completed.

In her comments, Pratt indicated that many deficiencies identified in her 2008 audit report had not yet been remedied, but that progress had been made.

Specifically with respect to the charge that there has been "intermingling of funds" between the Refuse District and the town of Bridgewater, she said that there have been instances of payments between the Town and the precinct, occasioned by the need to reimburse Bridgewater for District bills accidentally paid by the town because there was not sufficient delineation for billing between the two entities.

However, she said she found only one instance of this in 2009, and that steps are being taken to remedy the situation.

"Controls need to be tightened and the District is working on it," said Pratt. "We are hoping in the next few years they will be fully implemented."

No audit of the district finances was conducted between 1976, when the district was established, and 2007.

She did confirm that the New Hampshire Attorney General's office did consult her during a recent investigation of financial practices in the District.

Woolner said that the investigation, which began in March 2010, has been completed. "All issues which were raised in the complaint were investigated, and the case is now closed," said Woolner.

There was comparatively little discussion of the central difference of opinion between the Hebron and Bridgewater boards over the high costs of operating the incinerator. The Bridgewater Selectmen agree that the incinerator is not the cheapest alternative for the district, but they maintain that incineration is the "greenest" and the best long term strategy for the District.

When pressed directly by Hebron resident Ken Lonske about why Hebron should spend $190,000 for refuse disposal when it could use the Plymouth facility for a cost of only about $50,000 per year, Murphy said that it was his belief that "staying the course" with the incinerator would pay off down the road as the pressures on landfills increase in New Hampshire and financial pressures on the town of Plymouth grow for a variety of reasons.

A number of residents said they were not certain that the inconvenience and cost of driving to Plymouth to dispose of trash was worth the savings in taxes that would result from withdrawing from the Hebron-Bridgewater District.

However, most of the residents in attendance Tuesday night seemed to focus their remarks on the ongoing stalemate between the Hebron and Bridgewater select boards. Several residents asked if the differences between the boards could be reconciled, but they received no positive assurance from Bridgewater about that possibility.

The governance of the District currently consists of a board of commissioners, with the three Hebron selectmen and the three Bridgewater selectmen making up the board. Currently, the Hebron selectmen have no input on the three-member operations management subcommittee, as the one Hebron select board member who was on that committee no longer has certification to run the plant, according to Woolner and Murphy.

Numerous suggestions came from both Hebron and Bridgewater audience members about ways to change the charter of the District so that the management conflicts could be resolved. It was suggested that a seventh commissioner (possibly elected at large) could be added to break ties, that the chairmanship be rotated between towns on a yearly basis, and that a professional manager be hired to run operations at the plant and manage the district, rather than have the Bridgewater Select Board members continue a "hands on" approach to management, operating the equipment, paying the bills and doing the accounting, rather than playing a strictly policy making role as commissioners.

Woolner said that it would be possible to make such changes, but that they would need to be agreed to by a majority of voters in both towns.

Murphy said that hiring a professional manager for the District would be a costly alternative, requiring a salary of between $80,000 and $100,000 per year for a qualified candidate.

Martin Lord Osman
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Garnett Hill
Garnett Hill
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