Wolfeboro selectmen meet with state legislators on key bills
|STATE REPRESENTATIVES Senator Jeb Bradley (right) and (to Bradley’s right) Rep. Dave Knox and Chris Ahlgren met last Wednesday evening, March 9, with Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen members (left to right) Sarah Silk, Linda Murray and Chuck Storm (behind Murray). Newly-elected Selectman Dave Bowers (center), who had not yet been sworn in, sat in on the meeting. (Thomas Beeler photo) (click for larger version)|
March 17, 2011WOLFEBORO — The Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen held a special meeting last Wednesday, March 9, with the town's state representatives to discuss five pending bills and other concerns.
Four of the five specific bills discussed originated in the N.H. Senate and thus most of the conversation took place between selectmen and Senator Jeb Bradley. Also present and answering questions were Representatives Chris Ahlgren and Dave Knox. Representatives Betsey Patten and Steve Schmidt were not available that evening. Selectman Dave Senecal was also absent, but newly-elected Selectman Dave Bowers sat in as an observer, not having been sworn in yet.
Discussion started with SB 78, a bill sponsored by Bradley that ends the surcharge on motor vehicle registrations. Public Works Director Dave Ford handed out a letter to Bradley that expressed disappointment in his sponsorship because "SB-78 will have a significant negative impact on our State and Local roads and bridges." Ford cited a report that indicated there would be a $86 million shortfall in the biennium state budget if the current surcharge is allowed to sunset on June 30. "[This] will result in significant cuts to local municipalities for State Highway Aid Highway and Bridge Projects," the letter stated.
Ford specifically cited Wolfeboro's Center Street rebuilding project, which involves upgrading the drainage and rebuilding the roadway and sidewalks for Main Street to Route 109A. This has been designated a town-managed project on a state road that is to be funded one-third by the town and two-thirds by the state. Ford estimated the total cost at $1 million. "We can't afford losing $667,000 in funding for this project," he said. He urged Bradley to defeat the bill and maintain the revenue.
Town Manager Dave Owen added that SB 78 would also affect block grant distributions. He said Wolfeboro received $186,492 this year, which would be cut to $156,900 if the bill passes. He added that there were 366 "red list" bridges in the state that need work.
Bradley responded that he is getting a lot of support for SB 78.
Ford said that gas tax revenues, the other source of funding for roads, are going down as people cut back on driving due to high gas prices (the state gas tax is fixed a 18 cents and does not increase as prices rise). Selectman Chair Linda Murray pointed out that voters had just approved increasing the budget for road repairs and upgrades from $550,000 to $750,000.
Bradley said he had received more complaints about the $30 surcharge than any tax except the tax on limited liability corporations (LLCs). He added that the bill repeals an existing surcharge and is expected to have minimal impact, that the surcharge was designed to sunset in two years and that the governor has said he would veto an increase in the gas tax.
Rep. Ahlgren said he had voted against increasing the gas tax.
Bradley acknowledged that all municipalities want the tax to continue, but repeated that it has generated significant opposition.
Selectman Sarah Silk said dropping the surcharge would just downshift the deficit to towns.
Bradley responded that there had been $100 million in downshifting in the last budget and the governor's current budget proposes $200 million, including $150 million in retirement contributions.
Murray stated that the Wolfeboro Area Children's Center has struggled after the state froze and then cut daycare support.
Silk said ii is difficult for selectmen to get to Concord but paid lobbyists are there in great numbers. "Those you represent you hear from the least."
Bradley responded that he is very accessible and his phone number is in the book.
The next subject was SB 94, another bill Bradley sponsored allowing towns to review proposed community living facilities, such as the one at 15 Eagle Trace in Wolfeboro, which the residents of the subdivision there have objected to as a commercial enterprise.
Bradley reported that the bill "ran into significant opposition" and is being referred back for further study.
Selectman Chuck Storm, who went to Concord to testify in favor, said there were "lots of paid lobbyists lined up to testify against it."
Bradley said that lots of disabled people, paid or not, testified that the bill may be in conflict with federal housing laws and blocks reintegration into the community. He emphasized that the bill has not been killed and that he hopes the fact that the bill was filled will put the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on warning that it needs to proceed more carefully approving these facilities. He said he would continue to push for the bill.
Murray said the Wolfeboro does a lot to help the disabled already and was concerned that the Eagle Trace facility looks like a commercial venture in a residential neighborhood.
Rep. Babson added that DHHS has heard from others about the unfairness in the process.
Storm said that DHHS is not cooperating with local communities even when they are willing to cooperate.
Dick Hamilton, an Eagle Trace resident, said the residents feel the facility there is in violation of local zoning and clearly a commercial venture with "$500,000 a year in cash passing through that building. This is bureaucratic thuggery at its worst." He said DHHS says there are 1,377 such home in the state. At a cost of $125,000 per person per year "it is a very expensive way to deal with a problem," he added.
Fred Tedeschi, also an Eagle Trace resident and an attorney, said the facility was in violation of the Fairway View Estates covenants, that the DHHS legal case is "thin," and that what is being provided is not skilled nursing care but babysitting. He added that the number of patients was limited to three to avoid triggering code requirements like sprinklers and fire alarms.
Russell McCabe questioned the stated goal of these facilities to assimilate patients back into society yet it has been said that the patients involved are not going to get better and they will probably die in the home.
Bradley responded that the testimony gave the committee "wet feet" about pushing the bill. He said he also doubts DHHS will want to push such homes, given coming cuts to Medicaid. He added that he will facilitate contact with handicapped advocates and "build bridges" to make the law better.
Town Clerk Pat Waterman spoke against this bill, which would allow car dealers to do motor vehicle registrations. She acknowledged the arguments that the bill would make it more convenient for car buyers and that the cost of registration can be built into the car financing, but said she has concerns. The first is with residency requirements: she cited a North Country dealer who used his dealership to title a car for non-residents – "Residency is a huge issue." She said she already catches errors in title applications from dealers and is concerned about privacy issues, since the process will allow dealers to use a third party to do the processing. She said people like 20-day temporary plates that put off the cost of registering. Finally she asked, "who is going to audit the dealers or the third party?" Waterman suggested that dealers start with electronic title filing first.
Town Treasurer John Burt expressed concerns with how the funds would come to the town and whether it would compromise access to his accounts.
Bradley responded by asking Waterman if she had talked recently with the head of the Town Clerks Association, Sue McKinnon. He said there have been eight amendments to the bill and he believes there are now provisions to make sure residency requirements are met and that funds will come right to the towns. He pointed out that while registering cars is easy in Wolfeboro but it is not so easy in many of the other 233 towns. He stressed that the current bill set up a pilot program for one year, that auto dealers are major employers in the state, and that Sue McKinnon seems satisfied that it could work. He added that the first goal is to make sure the town get the $2 million in fees and the Department of Safety supports the bill because the 20-day plates make it harder to match cars with owners.
Bradley said he was not sure who would audit the dealers, but was sure it would not be Town Clerks.
Rep. Babson said during the one-year pilot dealers need to opt in, people could opt not to do it through the dealer and that it won't include renewals.
Waterman disagreed about renewals. She also said dealers are open seven day a week while her access to the registration system is limited to five days: how can dealers get seven-day access?
Rep. Ahlgren said he thought dealer rebates could be a source of funds for registration payments. He stressed that the idea was to make it more convenient for the buyer. Babson added that 27 states already have such systems.
This bill restores the pole tax exemption for phone companies that was eliminatedlast year. For years only electric companies paid property taxes on their poles. Bradley started off by pointing out that the system is not rational to allow the exemption, but he was concerned that the additional taxes on phone company poles would be passed through the consumer who has fixed lines, which he said are primarily the elderly. "It's a Hobbesian choice," he said, adding that the senate had passed the bill restoring the exemption that day.
Town Manager Owen pointed out that there is a lot more on the poles than land lines. Bradley said the tax would only be passed through to land line customers. Owen responded that 48 states do tax phone poles.
Bradley concluded his part of the discussion by pointing out that the retirement bill he is working on would have far more positive impact than the issues discussed that evening. He also reported that the senate passed bills that would eliminate school tax donor towns, would cap the amount spent and make sure no town gets more or less funding.
State reps Ahlgren and Babson reported that HB 457, which selectmen had put on the agenda, was dead. The bill would have cut interest rates on delinquent property taxes in half. The house committee voted it "Inexpedient to Legislate," thereby killing it.
Chair Murray thanked the three representatives for coming and discussing the issues.
At the end of the meeting Kathy Barnard announced that the Friends of Town Hall had petitioned for a recount of the 1042-728 vote on Article 12, the Brewster Hall rehabilitation proposal, which at 58.87 approval fell short of the 60 percent required. The recount subsequently took place on Tuesday, March 15 and did not change the outcome. The revised totals were 1044 yes to 744 no.