Sanbornton voters pepper town candidates with lots of questions

SANBORNTON — A standing-room-only crowd at the Sanbornton Public Library on Friday night peppered the two candidates for selectmen and three of the four candidates for the Budget Committee with questions as far ranging as their opinion on privatizing roads to potential time conflicts for serving.

Seeking the one seat available for a three-year term as selectman are Jeffrey Jenkins and Johnny VanTassel. Incumbent Guy Giunta is not seeking re-election.

Seeking seats on the Budget Committee are incumbent Judy Burlingame Rich (who wasn't there), incumbent Roger Grey, Ralph Rathjen and Mitch Lewis. Rathjen serves on the Transportation Privatization Committee and Lewis serves on the Capital Improvement Committee.

Some of Friday's debate centered on whether or not Jenkins (who vacations in Florida in winter) and VanTassel (who manages the Northfield Public Works Department) would be available when townspeople need them.

The topic arose when retired Town Finance Director Curt McGee mentioned that of the nine meetings that the Privatization Committee has had, VanTassel has only made the first two.

"How's he going to make a 4:30 p.m. selectmen's meeting?" McGee asked.

VanTassel responded by saying he was never meant to stay on that committee and had only agreed to advise it until a director or interim director was named, which the town has done.

"I could be able to make 4:30 p.m. meetings," VanTassel said, adding he believed that many people would like to go to Sanbornton's selectmen's meetings but are working. "I would think a little later would be better."

He also noted that if it was the middle of a snowstorm and he was plowing, then there was a good chance the town offices would be closed and there would likely be no meeting.

Gail Morrison, who is a candidate for Trustee of the Trust Fund, posed the same question to Jenkins, who vacations in Florida during the winter.

"Over the past few years this has kept me from stepping up," Jenkins said. He said state laws have changed regarding electronic communications and his cell phone is available to all. "Obama takes a vacation. I plan on taking a vacation."

Jenkins said there may be times when he appeared by computer (Skype), but guaranteed his attendance would be better than that of some selectmen who has served the town in the past.

As to privatizing the road responsibilities of the town, Jenkins said he is serving on the committee and said any decision is about a year away at the earliest. He said his research has shown that the 10 New England towns that had been identified as having private highway departments was misleading because those 10 towns had never had highway departments.

He also said the committee has never found a town that once it had a town-operated highway department returned to a private one.

Jenkins said he didn't yet have enough information about it and was uncommitted about what he would recommend.

VanTassel, who was the Sanbornton highway superintendent before leaving for Northfield, said that while the study being done is a good study, he really doesn't see Sanbornton's entire operation going private.

"I think (the study) will make for a better highway department," he said, noting that many of the things done by many municipal highway department are already private.

VanTassel also noted internal control can often make for a better product. Responding to an earlier observation from an audience member who complained that last summer's mowing was not very good, VanTassel said that in 2012 the department did it in such a way that certain brush would die back during the next year and make it easier and cheaper in 2013.

When the town instead subcontracted the work in 2013, he said it may have saved a little money but the quality of the work was not as good as when the town crews had done the moving the year before.

Rathjen said he realizes the entire DPW budget is $1.5-million (it includes the transfer station as well ) and that at most the town would only be able to privatized between $550,000 to $750,000 of the work anyway.

He said it was "premature" for townspeople to expect a $400,000 annual savings — a number that was thrown out by current Budget committee member Earl Leighton when he asked the candidates about it.

"We could come up with a situation where it could cost more," he said.

The other major point of discussion was the 2½ percent raise that was accepted by the Board of Selectmen but eliminated by the Budget Committee.

VanTassel said he feels employees are "extremely important" and would like to see them get a raise, but knows the town's taxpayers can only afford so much.

"We should cover the cost of inflation (1.3 percent according to the Consumer Price Index provided by the government) because keeping employees is a bonus," he said.

Jenkins, who is on the Budget Committee said he would definitely not support any 2½ percent raises this year. He noted that every employee got 2½ percent in 2013-2014 and the police got between 6-and 10-percent raises.

"We asked for departments to give us a flat salary budget. We thought it was a reasonable thing to do," Jenkins said.

Lewis said he works in the private sector and just saw many in his company take 40 percent pay cuts. "We gave 2½ percent last year and most towns didn't give more than 2 percent," he said.

"It's not easy," he said. "While 2½ percent seems fair, the inflation rate is 1.3 percent."

Rathjen described it as a valid difference between what the selectmen do and the Budget Committee does. He noted there is a $67,000 difference between the selectmen's and the Budget Committee's budget, $50,000 of it is raises.

Grey said he won't support 2½ percent raises this year and said he voted to keep salaries level. He said Sanbornton was a small rural community with 60 percent of its land in current use and 1,800 parcels that pay taxes.

He said that if people at annual town meeting vote to support the raises or to add the difference between the library request and the Budget Committee's recommendation that was fine, "but don't complain when the tax rate goes up."

"We have to start saying no at some point," Grey said.

Elections are May 13 and will be held at the Old Town Hall. Sanbornton's Town Meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Sanbornton Central School. Full sample ballots and the list of the warrant articles are available on the Sanbornton Town Website.