SANBORNTON — More than 300 voters filled gymnasium at Sanbornton Central School to overflowing and spent five-and-half hours trimming $40,000 from the operating budget and wading through 14 warrant articles, five of which together added $586,518 in spending to the $3.8 million budget at Town Meeting this week.
After agreeing to return the town planner to a 32-hour work week, Roger Grey proposed amending the budget to scuttle a cost-of-living-allowance (COLA) for town employees, freeze the salary of the Fire Chief and level fund the library budget. Grey requested his amendment be put to a secret ballot, slowing the pace of the meeting.
The count stalled when the ballot box was found to be locked and the key gone astray. But Moderator Tim Lang shuffled the warrant, bringing to the fore proposals to fund construction of a Parks and Recreation building and hire two full-time firefighters, which both failed, the second by another time consuming secret ballot. As the bewitching hour came and and went, voters adopted another half-dozen warrant articles, including spending $500,000 for road improvements, while discarding proposals to charge fees for pickings from the metal pile at the transfer station and regulate "unreasonable noise" in public places throughout the town.
Nina Gardner told the meeting that by being limited to 20 hours a week, the planner had no time to apply to economic development. She said the issue is a matter of "pay me now or pay me later," explaining that expanding the tax base, especially the share of commercial property, would be "a smart investment." She was echoed by Evelyn Auger, who chairs the Planning Board, who said that the $7,500 increase in the budget would prove "a money maker in the long run." By a margin of 142 to 134, the voters agreed.
"We've got to start making some tough decisions in this town," Grey, a member of the Budget Committee, began. "We can't go on as we are or we'll only be a community for the rich." He proposed eliminating the 2 percent COLA, denying the fire chief a $4,000 raise and striking the increase in the library budget, all of which would amount to $40,000, or 1 percent of the operating budget.
Craig Davis, Grey's colleague on the Budget Committee, reminded the meeting that the committee did not share Grey's opinion and pointed out while the salaries and wages of other state, county and municipal employees have risen significantly, the 1.5 percent COLA awarded to town employees last year was their only increase in eight years. The 2 percent COLA, he said, would add seven cents to the tax rate. Likewise, he said that the fire chief was hired at low end of the scale and also deserved a modest raise.
Grey's amendment carried by a margin of 163 votes in favor to 143 votes against.
By the time the result was announced, voters had withheld $98,000 to replace the building that housed the Parks and Recreation Department, which was demolished after being condemned by the town's insurance carrier. Tracy Wood of the Parks and Recreation Commission told the meeting that the $98,000 represented a one-time increase of 22 cents to the tax rate. "We have no home," she said, explaining that the department operated 12 programs, hosted six activities and staged special events for some 400 children and 50 adults. A half dozen parents spoke of the benefits the department provided for their children while others peppered Wood with questions about the annual operating costs of the facility. Ultimately, the proposal failed by a dozen votes, 147 to 135, on a division vote.
Fire Chief Paul Dexter spoke in support of his request to add two firefighters at a cost of $135,200, which was rejected the year before by just four votes. He explained that with only call and per diem firefighters the department frequently faces "a huge gap in coverage between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.," when it fields half its calls for service, most of which are for medical emergencies. The additional personnel would enable the department to staff a 12-hour daytime shift from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. seven days a week, with one full-time firefighter/EMT and one part-time per diem firefighter/EMT, he said.
Dave Nickerson, the outgoing chairman of the Board of Selectmen, who voted not to recommend the article, told voters that the Tilton-Northfield Fire & EMS Department is building a new station and referred to a specific site for the facility. "There is an opportunity here," he said, suggesting that Sanbornton could join in a regional department. "The door is open to talk to Tilton-Northfield before jumping into hiring two firefighters," he said.
When Selectman Johnny Van Tassel discounted the prospects of a regional department, Dave DeVoy, chairman of the Belknap County Commission, countered that "regionalization can happen as fast as the selectmen want it to happen."
By a second secret ballot voters soundly rejected the article, 191 to 95.
With that, the firefighters moved to reconsider the budget to grant the chief his pay raise. They were told the budget could only be reconsidered at a special town meeting. Stepping to the microphone, Dexter said he appreciated the gesture, but he could not support spending $5,000 to hold a special town meeting to give him a $4,000 raise.
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