MEREDITH — Seven of the eight candidates for the two open seats on the Board of Selectmen fielded questions from voters about traffic congestion, the municipal budget, meeting times, the senior center, economic development, the town library and an aging population when they appeared before a nearly full house at the Community Center on Thursday night.
Rosemary Landry, the first candidate to enter the race, was unable to attend the forum; Bev Lapham, David Bennett, Michael Hatch, Jonathan James, Ray Moritz, Michael Pelczar and Roland Tichy were all present.
The forum was coordinated by Lakes Region Democrats and moderated by the League of Women Voters NH.
Altogether four of the five seats on the board are vacant. Two with three-year terms, opened by the retirements of Peter Brothers and Carla Horne, will be filled by the election on Tuesday, March 10. After the election the three members of the new board will appoint two persons to fill the remaining seats, opened by the sudden, last-minute resignations of Hillary Seeger and Lou Kahn. The appointees will serve until the next town election in March, 2016.
Although the recommendation of the Routes 3/25 Advisory Committee was rejected, most echoed Hatch, a member of the advisory committee, who said "we've definitely got to do something, but I don't know the answer to that question."
All candidates pointed to the shopping center on Rte. 25 as a major bottleneck while James, Moritz and Bennett also stressed closer control of foot traffic across Rte. 3 at the town docks. Only Lapham suggested reconsidering the committee's recommendations, noting that it eliminated left turns in the corridor.
In response to concern about the growth of the municipal budget, James reminded his listeners that the town portion was projected to rise slightly and the Inter-Lakes School District budget accounted for most of the increase in municipal spending.
James, Moritz, Pelczar and Lapham all cautioned against deferring necessary investment in infrastructure. "I can't sit here and tell you I'll hold the line," said Moritz. "I don't think that's possible."
Likewise, Lapham acknowledged that "it is difficult but impossible to restrain spending. It's a balancing act and a real challenge."
Pelczar noted that the need for a new public works facility.
Bennett claimed a small clique approved expenditures without regard for others and called for greater public participation in budgeting to ensure "we live within our means."
Tichy also questioned the expense of projects like the Community Center, Police Station and Fire Station.
Hatch considered the one-percent increase in the town budget "good for a town the size of Meredith."
When a gentleman said that because the Selectboard has been meeting at 4:15 p.m. working people cannot attend all the candidates favored scheduling meetings in the evening at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.
The decision by the Belknap-Merrimack Counties Community Action Program to withdraw the senior center from the Community Center aroused concern among all the candidates. Calling senior citizens "the backbone of our town," Pelczar said that "we have this beautiful building and we ought to use it." Lapham noted that the center was built to serve the entire community and suggested a way should be found to fund programs for seniors. For Hatch seniors are "a top priority" and 'deserve a place to go and something to do." James described the center as "a baby sitting facility" and was troubled that "seniors have been shoved out the door." Noting the growth of the senior population, Moritz said "they have a right to expect and demand more services."
While the candidates appreciated the need for economic development to expand the commercial tax base, they favored the growth of small businesses and cautioned against significantly changing the character of the town. Tichy spoke of "businesses that bring something to the town," but warned against strip malls and big box stores. Bennett doubted that the town had sufficient housing, population and land to attract a large employer and called for promoting small businesses with light footprints. Pelczar proposed focusing development efforts along Rte. 104, where some firms operate. Noting that Meredith is a destination for retirees and tourists, Moritz anticipated growth in services that support both, which would "maintain the character of what we have."
The Meredith Public Library drew strong support from all seven candidates. James stressed the beauty of the building while Moritz said "a library is central to a vibrant community." Pelczar said "there's no way we can let anything happen to the library." And Tichy echoed "keep it the way it is."
"That's a tough question," remarked Hatch when asked what can be done to attract younger people to town. James said Meredith found itself in a "Catch-22," explaining "we want good jobs, but we don't want to change." Moritz ventured that a sound technological infrastructure could create diverse opportunities for people working from home while Pelczar suggested that the trades — carpentry, plumbing and electronics — represent steady employment at decent wages.
As a tourist destination, Tichy said the town could become home to artists and craftsmen. Bennett brought the forum to a close with laughter by recalling an old friend who was never out of work — digging graves.