LACONIA — "I'd rather look at the horizon than in the rear-view mirror," said City Councilor Bob Hamel, who did not expect to be challenged in his bid for a fifth term in Ward 5. But, earlier this month Tom Tardif appeared in the rear-view mirror when a recount of the 47 ballots cast in the primary election awarded him three write-in votes, enough to be offered a place on the general election ballot in November.
Ward 5 is one of three contested city council elections. David Bownes and Richard Beaudoin are vying to succeed Matt Lahey, in Ward 2 and Tony Felch seeks to unseat Armand Bolduc, in Ward 6. Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between the candidates sharper than in Ward 5.
During his four terms Hamel has come to play a pivotal role on the council where his support has been essential to the success of any major initiative. A champion of the property tax cap who was initially skeptical of major investments in the schools, he supported the construction of the Middle School, applying a sharp pencil to the project while cautioning against cheapening the building. When the School District turned its attention to the Huot Regional Technical Education Center and the High School, Hamel touched the brakes. Then, when he judged the timing and financing was right, he became an enthusiastic supporter of the expansive project, which included the expansion of the Huot Center, renovations to the high school and construction of new playing fields, including Bank of New Hampshire Stadium.
"I'm pretty proud of being part of these projects," Hamel said yesterday. The investment in the schools, he called "an investment in the community." He explained that the programs at the Huot Center will develop the workforce local manufacturing firms require to thrive as well as provide students with the skills to pursue successful careers. Moreover, he said that "when people are looking for a place to live and raise a family, one of the first things they look at are the schools."
Hamel stressed that the council has undertaken these major projects while budgeting within the limits of the tax cap. He expected that the reconstruction of the Central Fire Station will be next project on the agenda, adding that once it is complete all the major municipal buildings will have been ugraded. "Then we can think about doubling what we spend on roads," he said.
Apart from the public projects, Hamel said that the city has enjoyed a significant amount of private investment, including Walgreen's and CVS downtown, Dunkin' Donuts, Dairy Queen and MacDonald's on Union Avenue and townhouses and condominiums at The Weirs. "I'm seeing light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "There are people investing in Laconia."
Hamel said that he intends to ensure that "we take care of what we've got by keeping buildings in good repair and maintaining our infrastructure. We must spend the taxpayers' money wisely,"
For Tardif, who served as a city councilor from 1988 to 1990 and as mayor from 1990 to 1992, the race is the first he has entered since losing a Republican primary for Belknap County Commissioner to Frank Tilton by a two-to-one margin in 2008. He said after his friend Dave Gammon went to the length of petitioning the Superior Court to order the recount, he felt he should declare his candidacy. "I've bought signs," he remarked. "It broke my heart, but I bought signs."
"It's time for change," Tardif said, describing the incumbents as "almost career councilors.. We need a true conservative and I think that is what I am." Going a step beyond the tax cap, he said that he would not vote for any expenditures that increased the burden on property taxpayers. "The economy is not changing and it could get worse," he said. "people are still hurting."
Tardif said that, unlike Hamel, he would not have voted this week to authorize the School District to borrow $1.8 million to fund further renovations at the High School. Acknowledging that the loan bears no interest, he said that the debt service amounts to $78,000 worth of fat in a budget already full of it. "Likewise, he said that he was opposed to a "Pay-As-You-Throw" trash collection program, which Hamel supported, and also opposed the mandatory recycling program because it requires households to recycle or forego trash collection. "It's the penalty that concerns me," he said. "Trash collection is the responsibility of city government."
While Tardif called Hamel "a good guy," he observed that "sometimes Bob asks all the right questions, but votes with the group."
Tardif doubted that his past as the head of the controversial Straight Arrow ticket of a quarter century ago would haunt him. "I don't think they know me," he remarked, declaring "I'm not ashamed of anything I did as city councilor or mayor." He said that his administration built a park house, paved Union Avenue and North Main Street, bought a fire truck and ambulance "and the tax rate didn't go up."
"What I say I'll do, I do," Tardif said."If I say I'll do the job, I'll do the job."