Heidi Duval, assistant town administrator in Gilmanton, pauses from working in the selectmen's office at the town hall Monday. (David Carkhuff/The Laconia Daily Sun)
Heidi Duval was assistant for two years
By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILMANTON — Heidi Duval, assistant town administrator in Gilmanton, has been contracted by the town to serve as town administrator for two years, effective March 10.
Duval, who works in the selectmen's office at Gilmanton Town Hall, replaces Paul C. Branscombe, who is retiring. She also wades into a budget process that has seen its share of turmoil in recent months.
Selectman Michael Jean said the board voted last Monday night, Jan. 23, to officially choose Duval for the job.
"She's been training under Paul for the last year and a half roughly and going to different classes. I think when she gets into it, she will be fine. She has been to the budget hearings and the budget workshops. She's been with the town for quite a few years," Jean said.
"She should do a great job at it."
Town leaders brought her over to the assessing department to help out there and start training her roughly a year and a half ago, he said.
Brian Forst, chairman of the budget committee, agreed that Duval has the experience to fill the position.
"I wish her well. I hope she does a good job. She's been involved in the town now for a while. I think this all came on a little quicker than expected, but hopefully she's ready for it," Forst said.
"I started as the deputy town clerk/tax collector," Duval said Monday, "and I was there for five and a half years estimated, and then I came over to this area to touch everything I could touch over here," she said, referring to the selectmen's office. Duval said she has spent the last year and a half shadowing Branscombe to "learn what I could."
Branscombe, outgoing town administrator, preferred not to comment on town issues or the upcoming deliberative session of Town Meeting, which is Saturday, Feb. 4, at 10 a.m. at the school. Voting day is Tuesday, March 14.
"I've been here since July 2015, but I'm heading off into the horizon," Branscombe said, deferring to Duval on questions of the upcoming budget vote. On Monday, Branscombe said he had 29 days left on his contract.
When Branscombe arrived in September 2015, he did so amid contentious debate and a divided board of selectmen. The board voted 2-1 to grant him a four-year contract starting at a salary of $55,000 in 2016 and including three annual increases of $5,000 through 2019.
Now, he is departing amid questions of town budgeting and taxation.
In late 2015-16, the town tax rate rose sharply when the town neglected to transfer some of its unexpended fund balance into the revenue line, which is commonly referred to a "buying down the rate." Later, selectmen voted to move $171,000 from the undesignated fund balance into the revenue side, which helped dampen the tax rate.
During town budget review at a Jan. 7 Gilmanton Budget Committee meeting, Chairman Brian Forst reported a new bottom line in the committee's amendment of the town budget of $3,614,691. "The budget committee reduced the town budget by $23,895 from the original proposed number brought forward by the board of selectmen," the minutes reflected.
Forst noted that the proposed operating budget, not including the warrant articles that the Budget Committee will be bringing forward, totaled $3,614,691, which represents an estimated tax impact of $4.83 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, the minutes reported. The Budget Committee also supported a budget line for the executive office, including town administrator budget, in the amount of $175,724. In March 2016, voters approved an operating budget of $3,576,702.
In an interview, Forst called the proposed town budget "fairly solid" and "a pretty tight budget."
Regarding the discrepancy over the tax rate and unexpended fund balance, Forst said, "My opinion was things weren't figured quite correctly a year ago and there was a spike in the tax rate. There are a lot of different theories about why that happened." But he added, "The past is the past, and what we've got to do is make sure these things don't happen again in the future."
A former selectman, he recalled bearing the responsibility of setting the tax rate.
Jean said, "I still have questions on the revenues and all of it."
Resident Ralph Lavin has filed requests for information from the town, but he said he has not received answers regarding the past tax-rate spike and what he has described as a half-million-dollar overtaxation.
"I guess I've just given up," he said Monday. "I didn't like the idea these people were getting applauded for lowering the taxes, and all they had to do was give us back the taxes the selectboard took from us the previous year."
Lavin said he doesn't think town officials are "intentionally trying to hide anything," but he said, "I still have not received an answer to that question. I can't even get them to tell me what the exact number was that the town was overtaxed."
Jean said, "We hire people to track it and do it, we've got to depend on them to do their job."
As for this year's proposed budget, he said, "I wanted to start the whole budget season earlier in the game, and then they decided to start later, and then they had the budget workshops when I couldn't attend them. We'll see what happens Saturday."