February 29, 2012Selectmen and School Board members held a public meeting during the selectmen's meeting Wednesday, Feb. 22 on three petitioned warrant articles set to appear on the 2012 town and school district ballot.
Resident and budget committee candidate Barbara Aichinger is the lead petitioner for all three articles, and said her articles are a "symptom of the problem" of falling property assessments and raising taxes.
According to Aichinger, the goal is to lower the Gilford tax rate, increase voter participation at the deliberative sessions, and improve local government transparency.
The three articles are similarly worded, and would have a similar effect on the town and school district.
In summary, the first article would place the responsibility of determining the default budget, which is put in place if residents vote against the proposed budget, in the hands of the budget committee, rather than town or school district officials. The second would implement a zero percent tax cap, which would prevent a proposed budget of a greater amount than the previous year. The third would move the Annual Town Meeting, deliberative session and elections back from February and March to March and May, respectively.
During this year's Deliberative Sessions, selectmen and School Board members said they were unanimously opposed to the three petitioned warrant articles. They said they were concerned that the articles would hinder the roles of elected officials, and make the hiring of new employees more difficult.
Members of each board explained that their financial departments construct the default budget by using the previous year's budget as a starting point, and adding in contractual obligations, such as any increases in salaries and benefits for teachers. If the proposed budget is decreased during the budget committee's review period, then the default budget is usually the higher of the two choices.
Aichinger said she proposed her article seeking to place the responsibility for setting the default budget in the town budget committee's hands with the hope that the budget committee would always present default budgets that are lower than the proposed budgets.
During last week's hearing, Budget Committee member Dale Dormody voiced his concern with placing responsibility over the default and proposed budget with the same committee.
"The default budget currently follows a defined process, and I think it should be that way. I don't think the same body should be responsible for both," said Dormody, adding that if the article passed, the default budget would be less effective. "The budget committee would not be following a process, but instead be finding a lower budget. It would be take this budget we developed, or take this other one, which is much less."
Terry Stewart, a former budget committee member, said that the default budget has always been a pet-peeve for him because it was set by bureaucrats and not elected officials, so residents could not debate the default budget.
Town and School District officials said that implementing a zero percent tax cap would limit the role of the Budget Committee and make it impossible to add funds for any projects or programs without cutting funds from existing line items or repealing the cap.
During the hearing, Budget Committee member Kevin Roy spoke out against the tax cap, complimenting selectmen and School Board members for their work in reducing spending over the last few years.
"I don't thing it's something we need," said Roy. "This select board and this School Board have done a good job over the last few years, with increases in the budget limited, and even reducing the budget."
Roy also clarified that a previous statement regarding the Budget Committee's support of the articles was incorrect, as they never voted on the articles, but some committee members chose to sign the petitions independently.
Budget Committee member Kevin Leandro voiced his support for the tax cap, arguing that the school board's claim that it has reduced the district's budget for three out of the past four years was not good enough. To present a more accurate picture, Leandro said he wanted School Board members to include the budgets from the past 10 years.
"Why only go back four years? Why not go back 10?" said Leandro. "Three out of 10 doesn't sound as good."
Doug Lambert, a candidate for the School Board, said he supported the tax cap for both bodies. He referenced his conversation earlier with another resident who said the tax cap was "toothless" because the budgets could be amended at the deliberative sessions.
Lambert agreed with that individual, but added that "It would force the governing bodies to construct a budget based on the cap. It puts the power to raise the budget in the hands of voters at the deliberative session."
To this, School Board Vice Chair Paul Blandford added that the power to amend the budget has always been in the hands of voters at the deliberative sessions.
"In my experience, it always goes up," said Selectman John O'Brien.
Stewart agreed with the cap, saying that it would bring more people to the deliberative sessions.
"The tax cap is irrelevant, but necessary," said Stewart, suggesting that voters could change the budget, but they would have to attend the deliberative session to make amendments.
Sandy Morrissey said she was against all three articles, adding that "Just because we can have a tax cap does not mean we should."
"We need to let the people we have elected do their jobs," said Morrissey. "The petitioners speak only for themselves, and not for everyone."
Deb Laliberte started off by saying how much she loved living in Gilford, and she was afraid that the articles would reduce the town and school services and quality of life for residents.
"I feel that's getting lost here. The quality of life that so many of us enjoy here," said LaLiberte. "I know people are struggling, and I think our School Board, Budget Committee and selectmen are working very hard to address that."
Laliberte continued, saying that these articles could have "immediate and dangerous" effects on that great quality of life and hinder the elected officals.
"People won't want to move here, and people won't want to send their kids to school here," said Laliberte.
The finial article failed to garner support from the two boards because they said it would increase the time spent without an approved budget.
Leandro spoke in favor of this article, using another town where he owns property as an example.
"Planned out properly, it could work," said Leandro, adding that although there would be an adjustment period, "The goal is to get as many people participating as possible."
Leandro sided with the petitioners' view that better weather would yield a high attendance at the deliberative sessions.
Dormody suggested that weather was a factor with attendance numbers, and it may have more to do with the deliberative session being a long and boring meeting.
"I seriously don't believe that the reason we don't get attendance at the deliberative session is weather," said Dormody. "I think they are long, detailed sessions, sometimes made longer by the number of paper votes. I don't think moving it to May is going to bring the doors down."