Debate of 'reasonable cost' spices up annual Meredith Town Meeting

MEREDITH — With little debate and by wide margins, fewer than 100 residents at Town Meeting on Thursday evening endorsed the operating budget and a half-dozen warrant articles recommended by the Board of Selectmen, along with a petitioned article to put $5,000 toward the cost of celebrating the town's 250th anniversary in 2018.

Nate Torr, who chairs the Selectboard, explained that the $12,932,815 operating budget will sustain the current level of municipal services, which represent a reduction from 2008, the year the board has applied as its benchmark for the amount to be raised by property taxes. The increase in the budget of $266,166, or 2.3 percent, consists of expenditures for capital equipment and highway maintenance as well as topping up expendable trust funds.

The budget includes 1.25 percent wage adjustment for all town employees and a 2.5 percent merit raise for eligible employees. There are no new positions. Nor have any positions been reclassified. Vacancies arising from retirements and resignations will not be filled automatically.

"We're at a point where, if we reduced anymore, we'd really being going backwards," Torr said.

Voters approved six warrant articles that together added $964,859 to the budget. However, two of these articles drew from reserves and funds already established and a third was supplemented by a grant. These monies represent $382,000 of revenue that offsets the amount that would otherwise be raised by property taxes to fund these appropriations.

The total appropriation, including the warrant articles, is $13,902,674. Estimated revenues of $4,858,651 are supplemented by $1 million drawn from the undesignated fund balance, leaving $7,969,974. Adding $75,000 for overlay and $224,750 for war service credits , the amount to be raised by property taxes is $8,343,773, an increase of $408,576, or 5.1-percen, which is projected to add 25 cents to the town tax rate of $4.55.

The Selectboard recommended applying $250,000 from a reserve to match state highway funding to finance immediate improvements to town roads, leaving the reserve with a balance of $187,154. Likewise, the selectmen proposed that $62,000 for cable television franchise fees and replacing equipment be taken from the cable franchise fee special revenue fund, established in 1999, which will be left with a balance $467,755. Finally, an appropriation of $177,859 restore the chimney, replace the gutters and repoint the bricks on the Meredith Public Library will be offset by a $70,000 grant from the New Hampshire Land and Community Heritage Program.

Voters approved a recommendation to add $200,000 to the expendable trust fund for the replacement of vehicles belonging to the Fire Department. The Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Committee proposed accelerating the purchase a heavy rescue vehicle from 2015 to 2014 at a cost of $550,000. The fund has a balance of $364,431 and another $200,000 would enable the town to negotiate a favorable price and avoid borrowing costs by paying cash. The vehicle would replace the 1986 rescue van and Engine 4, dating from 1983, would be retired but not replaced.

Voters also agreed to add $175,000 to the expendable trust fund for replacing vehicles and equipment at the Department of Public Works (DPW). This year the selectmen included the purchase of a dump truck and chipper, with an aggregate cost of $245,000, in their budget and anticipated that other equipment will require replacement in 2015. The CIP Committee noted that without adding to the expendable trust fund, which has a balance of $370,603, future equipment and vehicle purchases could be deferred.

An article to spend $100,000 for a study of the feasibility of constructing a new facility for the DPW on the site of the Highway Building prompted the lone debate of the meeting. Steve Merrill offered an amendment directing the selectmen "to seek design alternatives that meet the needs of the DPW at the lowest reasonable cost to the taxpayers." He acknowledged that a new facility is necessary and presumed that one would be built, explaining only that he sought to ensure that the project was undertaken at a "reasonable cost."

Bob Flanders, a former selectmen who served when the community center, police station and fire station were built, called the amendment "a slap in the face to the people who have worked in the past." He said that all three projects were completed under budget, lauded the design committees for each and insisted "this town has no history of wasting money."

Dave Sticht asked who was planning the project. When Town Manager Phil Warren replied that there was a working group of himself, Mike Faller of the DPW, Dan Leonard of the Water and Sewer Department and Selectman Peter Brothers, Sticht likened it to "inmates telling how to design a prison."

Ken Colburn of the Energy Committee explained that construction costs represent 20 percent and operating costs 80-percent of the cost of a building over the course of its life and said that by investing in thorough planning the selectmen were properly seeking to minimize the operating costs.

Among the selectmen, only Herb Vadney expressed support for the amendment. Lou Kahn reminded Merrill that the proposal was for a feasibility study, not to design and engineer a facility, suggesting that his amendment was premature. On a show of hands the amendment failed and the article was adopted.