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Ward, residents claim selectmen not respecting the vote

April 15, 2011
LITTLETON- Spurred by a presentation by Brien Ward, residents made their disappointment in the selectmen known at last Wednesday's selectmen's meeting. At its height, the four-hour, standing room only meeting had residents shouting and storming out of the Opera House in frustration.

"In Littleton, the voter is king," said Ward, who was the one who made the motion to cut $745,000 from the town's proposed budget at the deliberative session. "They speak, as a public official, you listen."

The statement came during a presentation on how Ward believes the board of selectmen has ignored the will of the voter by making cuts that go against the sentiment of the original amendment.

"We're at a point where you, as voters, are not going to have any say in what goes on in town," said Ward to the audience.

Historically, Ward argued, Littleton's government has honored the specifics of an amendment, even though it was only required to meet the bottom line of the budget. Ward gave 16 examples of this happening from 2005 to 2008, in both the school and town spheres. For example, in 2006, when $315,407 was deleted from the town budget eliminating the assistant town manager, a police lieutenant, and an MRI contract for economic development, or, in 2008, when $140,000 was added to the school budget for math and social studies positions. In these cases, the Littleton Board of Selectmen and Littleton School Board not only adjusted their budgets by the monetary amount, but also honored the method of reduction or addition.

"Historically, we have always treated deliberative session amendments and warrant articles with the same amount of respect," said Ward, implying that the selectmen have not done so in this case.

Ward made the motion for the successful amendment of the proposed budget at the town's deliberative session in February, cutting $745,000 from the $5.5 million budget. Along with the figure, the motion made a suggestion about how the reduction should be reached, with the elimination of 11 of the town's 50 positions: the town manager, police captain, a police sergeant, police detective, fire department captain, three fire department lieutenants, planning and zoning clerk, assessing clerk, and a highway department employee. Ward purposefully stayed away from the library, transfer station, Park Commission, Chamber of Commerce, Glenwood Cemetery, Conservation Commission, town clerk's office, Community House, and the fire department call company.

Since the voters approved the proposed budget 964 to 794 on voting day, the selectmen have worked to find the $745,000 reduction in the budget. In their first round of cuts, they eliminated the town manager, three highway department employees, one police officer, two firefighters, the tax collector, and a transfer station position. They also reduced subsidizes to the library ($50,000), parks and recreation ($50,000), the Littleton Area Chamber of Commerce ($15,000), the Community House ($5,000), the Conservation Commission ($5,000), and the Cemetery Board ($3,000). An additional $60,000 reduction was made in labor-related items (seasonal employees, number of hours worked, etc.) and $59,000 in non-labor related items (Channel 2 coverage, department events, signs, etc.).

Many of the residents present – including Ward, himself – argued that these cuts were not in line with the sentiment of the amendment, which focused on eliminating middle management positions, particularly in the police and fire departments. They believe these departments are over-staffed, and have superfluous supervisory roles that inflate the town's budget with hefty salaries and benefits.

"The actions and the cuts that you made were not the ones that I voted for," said Resident Rebecca Pageau.

Selectman Mike Gilman, who as the newly-elected selectman was not involved in the initial round of cuts, made a motion to "respect the will of the voters" and to reconsider the method of cutting. Selectman Marghie Seymour seconded the motion "for the purpose of discussion." She went on to argue that it was unfair for Ward to compare cuts over a multi-year period that, in total, still falls roughly $184,000 short of the $745,000 cut made in just one year. Seymour recognized that while services provided by the Parks and Recreation department, the Chamber of Commerce, and the transfer station are important, public safety is more important, and she did not want to be responsible for someone dying because of cuts made to the fire or police departments.

"You're not accountable," Seymour said to Ward, "but I am."

Chairman of the Select Board Ron Bolt defended the selectmen's actions based on what he claims were poor calculations.

"The amendment was fundamentally flawed from beginning to end," said Bolt. "It was rapidly conceived and poorly executed."

The selectmen have made this argument from the beginning, stating that Ward's suggested cuts do not add up to the $745,000 target. This comes from a combination of not accounting for the fact that the budget was already a quarter of the way through its cycle when the cuts could first be implemented, which means a quarter of the eliminated positions' salaries were already expended. Also, because of contractual agreements, the selectmen argued that the town could not fire more senior employees before first laying off those hired more recently. Ward has countered that the selectmen did not take labor-related costs such as travel and training into account when making that determination. However, the selectmen insisted that, should the cuts have come solely from labor – as the amendment intended – that would mean laying off 18 or 19 employees, rather than 11; this represents 40 percent of the town's work force.

"You can go down the list, and none of it made any sense financially. So, basically, what happened is we went back to the drawing board," said Bolt. "It was just not a workable amendment. We were not disrespecting anyone."

Resident Bruce Hadlock found Bolt's defense lacking, calling for his resignation.

"You disrespected our whole community," said Hadlock.

Hadlock also did not agree with Bolt and Seymour's decision not to accept help from local business owners with backgrounds in working with budgets. Budget Committee Chairman Steve Kelley suggested forming such a group to help make the decisions on how most efficiently to make the cuts at the March 9 press conference.

"You won't listen to help," said Hadlock.

Resident Bill LaTulip made a short presentation on the political climate in Littleton following the mass departure, asking the residents to stop micromanaging the selectmen and to make a clear distinction between what is a "want" and what is a "need" in terms of town services. Ultimately, he called for an end to town divisiveness.

This seems unlikely, at least in the near future, as half of the room's over 100 occupants left the meeting halfway through with shouts and grumbles of "Wait 'til next year."

"I've lived in Littleton all my life, and to have people act like this is ridiculous," said LaTulip.

Later in the evening, the town took a $48,603 step closer to reaching the $745,000 budget reduction with the refinancing of a town fire truck. The measure was made possible by a warrant article passed this year that gives the selectmen the authority to refinance loans in order to save the town money. In addition to the $559,910 in the initial round of cuts and layoffs, and the $55,000 in Main Street project money to be used for a bond payment, the selectmen have cut $615,466 so far, leaving $129,534 left to find.

The selectmen voted to defer the three-percent pay increase scheduled for exempt, non-union workers, and will revisit it when they "can review where the budget is going," according to Bolt. A three-percent increase for the union workers is contractually scheduled for this year, and the selectmen had previously planned to include the non-union workers in that measure.

North Country Environmental
Martin Lord Osman
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