By THOMAS P. CALDWELL, LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — Should taxpayers be supporting nonprofit agencies that provide services to local residents, or should the residents make charitable contributions to the agencies they believe in?
Should the town continue its membership in the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which provides training for local government officials but also is a lobbyist for causes the town may not support?
These are among the questions voters will have to decide when they pick up their ballots on March 13.
When drafting the Town Meeting warrant, selectmen are required to decide whether to support or not support each article. There is no middle choice, where they can say they neither support nor oppose a given article.
The same thing holds for budget committee members with regard to articles that involve public funds.
For Gilford officials, that means they will “not recommend” articles that they may individually support but which they feel should be left to the voters to decide.
In the case of the nonprofit— or “outside” — agencies, it has been a long-standing policy of the Gilford Board of Selectmen to “not recommend” the requests for funding, yet the articles pass year after year because voters believe in the importance of contributing toward the continued viability of the service providers.
Budget Committee members have a different issue with the nonprofits. Before sending taxpayer money their way, the Budget Committee wants to see hard data on the need: financial statements, how much they spend for local services, number of people served, etc. In most cases, according to Chairman Norman Silber, the agencies do not provide that information.
During Gilford’s deliberative session on Thursday night, Silber said, “No one is questioning the good work these agencies do, but we fund a town welfare officer, who deals with Gilford residents needing assistance.”
Silber also took the agencies to task for the level of compensation for their top officers, and how much money they have put away in bank accounts. “You will be astounded at their large numbers,” he said.
In the case of the Lakes Region Mental Health Center, formerly Genesis Behavioral Health, Silber said its top individuals make in excess of $200,000 a year, while the average household income in Gilford is less than $100,000 a year.
Ann Nichols, director of development and communications for the agency, said, “Those numbers are accurate. Our top seven leaders are paid more than $1 million, but those people are physicians, and psychiatrists. Most in the agency make less than $50,000.”
She said there is a competitive market for psychiatrists, with only 1,200 graduating nationwide each year. The majority of practicing psychiatrists are aging and retiring, which she said “places patients in a precarious situation.” Hence, the high level of compensation.
Nichols said many of the 24 towns the agency serves have an application process that outlines what financial and service information they are looking for, and she suggested that Gilford do the same. “We would be more than happy to share that with you,” she said.
Budget Committee member Skip Murphy reminded voters that many of the nonprofit agencies also get funding from the county, state, and federal governments, so, “Even if we do not fund it here, as taxpayers, we are paying.”
Resident Fred Butler said it would be helpful to have the town share information about the services the agencies do provide, and said he doubted that the welfare budget would cover all of the services the town would need without those agencies’ help.
Selectman Gus Benavides said the state statute governing welfare requires towns to meet the need, “so no matter what we budget for, if there is a need, we ‘shall’ fund the need.”
New Hampshire Municipal Association dues normally are included in the general operating budget for the town, but selectmen this year pulled those funds from the budget and put the matter into a separate warrant article to allow the voters to decide whether to continue the town’s participation.
Not knowing that the selectmen would take that step, Silber had circulated a petition to put the question on the ballot, resulting in two articles dealing with the same thing.
“In prior years, the Budget Committee reduced the money by the amount of the annual dues, but the selectmen have the ability to transfer money between accounts, so the town continues to be a member,” Silber said. “But not every town is a member. The New Hampshire Municipal Association lobbies the legislature using taxpayer money to obtain taxpayer money, and not every town may agree with a particular position.”
He said the Municipal Association “engineered the election day fiasco in 2017, rather than following the law and the direction of the Secretary of State.” Although the date of elections is set in the state constitution, the Municipal Association advised towns that they could postpone Town Meeting because of the snowstorm that day, resulting in the state legislature having to pass legislation to ratify the actions taken by towns that followed the association’s advice.
Resident Bruce Thurston asked, “I assume there is some benefit to membership?”
Town Administrator Scott Dunn said the association has lobbied to prevent the state from downshifting its expenses to local communities, prompting Murphy to say, “Taken in the aggregate, money will be taken from our pockets regardless at what level of government.”
In earlier discussions, officials had assumed that the town still would be able to attend the seminars that the association holds throughout the year, but Dunn said he was informed that, if the town was not an NHMA member, officials would not be able to attend the seminars.
Silber said that was not his understanding and he commented that, with other towns dropping out, if the NHMA did try to limit participation at its seminars, it would be putting itself on precarious financial footing.
Voters at the deliberative session asked a few questions about the proposed $13,037,801 operating budget, mainly focusing on the differences between the selectmen’s and Budget Committee versions. While both budgets shared a bottom-line figure, there were some differences in how they arrived at that number.
Resident Gretchen Gandini asked the critical question: “Are you comfortable that you have enough money to operate the town?”
The answer was “Yes.”
Should voters not approve that budget in March, the default budget would be $12,648,499.
Silber described the town’s inter-municipal agreement with Laconia for the Lakes Business Park as a contractual obligation that the town had to pay.
“Otherwise, I would have urged the committee not to approve this $58,000 expenditure,” he said. “There are a lot of vacant lots. These are town-owned properties that are not on the tax rolls since it was established 17 years ago.”
By contrast, Silber described the petitioned warrant article to establish a Police Dog and Training Capital Reserve Fund, with an appropriation of $2,900, as “something we really need to have. It’s a piece of equipment, but a living and breathing piece of equipment.”
He said public safety is the town’s number one responsibility, and there is a “major drug abuse epidemic” that needs to be addressed. The K9 unit is essential to that work, he said.