It was more people than most of them had seen in the Council chambers since, well, ever.
Derry residents turned out, more than 100 strong, to attend the March 24 Town Council meeting and discuss possible cuts to the 2016 budget. Their presence resulted in a standing-room-only crowd, with the back doors left open for attendees to spill out into the hallway and a conference room opened for the overflow.
Residents began arriving at the Municipal Center before 6:30 p.m. They were there to make their opinions known on a preliminary 2016 budget presentation, designed by Town Administrator Galen Stearns at the directive of the Town Council. The charge to Stearns had been to develop a budget that would reduce the town tax rate by $2 per $1,000, and he had done so. But residents had plenty to say about why it shouldn’t happen.
Most of the criticism centered on proposed cuts to emergency services and the elimination of funding for area nonprofits.
The proposal would leave six currently vacant Fire Department positions empty and eliminate three more positions, closing a fire station. Changes to the Police Department would leave two vacant positions unfilled and eliminate one sworn officer and one civilian position. Both departments would face cuts in overtime pay under the scenario presented at the meeting.
Michael Hughes, a resident who is a Derry police sergeant, was first to the microphone. He referred to an online petition he’d started that had 653 Derry residents protesting the cuts. “I am asking you not to reduce services,” he said. “It is arbitrary, unnecessary and irresponsible.”
Resident Helen Evans reminded the audience that the services provided, including police, fire and library, don’t just benefit taxpayers. “The Derry Police Department protects all Derry citizens, across a wide range,” Evans said.
Evans said Derry Fire serves 33,000 Derry residents, plus 9,000 from Chester and Auburn, and has a 57 percent “simultaneous incident” rate. “That means 57 percent of the time that you call them, they are already on other calls,” Evans said.
“Please do not dismantle my community,” Evans said.
Resident and former Town Councilor Neil Wetherbee criticized the Council for lack of transparency, and criticized the $2 per $1,000 figure as being “pulled out of a hat.”
While Councilors have insisted that nothing is cast in stone, Wetherbee countered that time is running out. “You say, ‘Let’s wait and see’? We are four weeks from the public hearing, and we have no idea what the community is going to look like with this.
“Transparency is not platitudes and rhetoric,” Wetherbee said.
When newly-elected chair Tom Cardon told him his three minutes were up, Wetherbee kept reading and Cardon gaveled him. Councilor Mark Osborne said, “What the hell’s the matter with you? Your time is up!”
Brian Chirichiello, also a former Councilor, offered to yield his three minutes to Wetherbee, but Cardon said he wanted to give everyone a chance to be heard.
Realtor Steve Trefethen got up to speak and said he owned property in Derry. Wetherbee said, “You shut me down and you let him speak?” Cardon told Trefethen that the forum was limited to Derry residents only.
Michael Gendron, a Derry resident and chairman of Derryfest, said, “You need to use an X-acto knife, not a chain saw.”
Jay Madnick, a resident for 28 years, pleaded for restoration of emergency services. “A few years ago, my wife could not move her leg,” Madnick said. “I called the Derry Fire Department. She was having a stroke. She’s doing well now, but what if we had had to wait?”
Resident and former Citizen of the Year Janet Conroy urged the Council to follow the same procedure it had for years, and listen to the department heads (See related story page 2).
Former Councilor Paul Needham warned that the cuts could impact services and the town could not easily recover due to the tax cap.
“Concord will not bail us out,” Needham said. “We are hanging ourselves.”
And crime is like water, Needham said: “It chooses the path of least resistance.”
Craig Bulkley, a former Councilor and former Town Administrator, spoke to the possible cut in paving funds. “In 1986, the roads were deteriorating and we had to bond to get them fixed,” Bulkley said. “We were dealing with years of neglect by previous Boards of Selectmen.”
Personnel and benefits are locked in by contract, Bulkley said, and the first area people look to cut is road maintenance.
“With the tax cap, if you do these cuts, you will handicap the town forever,” he told the Council.
Ron Sebastian, president of the Professional Firefighters Union of Derry, said he represented 68 uniformed officers in Local 4392. When their contract expired in 2011,he said, members made concessions and went a year without a contract, saving the town $30,000. This past September they agreed not to negotiate until the new Administrator was hired.
“We have responded to Mr. Stearns and sent him e-mails saying we are open to resuming negotiations,” he said.
On March 13 he met with Stearns, who told him he was still waiting direction from the Council to resume negotiations.
“We are not thugs, wolves or fear-mongers,” Sebastian said.
Mary Till, a former Democratic state representative, said property taxpayers were the last resort after all other sources of revenue had been eliminated. “You do not have to take this on your shoulders,” she told the Council. “Hold your Senators and Representatives responsible.”
Till also called on the School Board and administration to work with Concord.
“I applaud your efforts,” she told the Council, adding, “But these cuts are potential suicide.”
Debbie Roy, who works for Derry Community Television and also teaches classes with the Recreation Department, said she moved to Derry in 2006 because of its sense of community. She warned the Council that the cuts would affect residents in other ways.
“If you close a fire station, your homeowners insurance will go up. If you cut police, your car insurance will go up,” she said. Roy asked for specifics on what programs would be cut.
Phil Brophy said he moved to Derry from Massachusetts for the quality of life. Fire, he said, responded to 2,900 emergency calls last year, or one in 10 of Derry’s residents. “Actions have consequences,” he said. “Beyond the line items are people.”
Brophy also spoke to the cuts in nonprofits and charitable organizations, noting that one of his daughters had an autoimmune disease and missed most of high school. Thanks to The Upper Room, his daughter received her GED and is now a college freshman.
Margaret Doughty, director of Family Promise, spoke to her agency’s needs. The program helps homeless families with children get back on their feet through a combination of job training, counseling, case management and rotating churches that shelter the families for a week at a time. The agency asks for $5,000 from Derry, Doughty said, adding, “We receive 75 percent of our referrals from your Human Services department.”
Andrea Younie, a resident and employee of The Upper Room, carried posters made by clients of the agency that serves families and youths. The cuts would affect the number of people served by the agency, including Community Service Learning Opportunities, the Youth Diversion program, and even the Food Pantry.
Former State Rep. Pat Dowling said, “You don’t only represent the taxpayers and voters. You represent all of Derry.”
She quoted TV doctor Wayne Dyer as saying, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you’re looking at will change.”
Former Councilor Gordon Graham said, “You tried to create a new process and set a goal. It sounds innocuous. But it hasn’t led to good results. I am urging you to abandon this course now. Not after the public hearing, but now. Please end this silliness tonight.”
Cardon thanked the residents for speaking and Stearns for his efforts.