Though he asked residents not to clap, cheer or otherwise impede the flow of the Public Forum section of the April 7 meeting, Derry Council Chair Tom Cardon had to use his gavel more than once.
Council Chambers drew a standing-room-only crowd once again as residents expressed their concern, and in some cases, confusion about possible reductions to the FY 2016 budget in order to bring the tax rate under control.
In reference to the March 24 meeting, Cardon said he had had “a couple of complaints” about the decorum of the meeting. “I’ve been on the phone pretty much all week,” he said. “I am asking you to keep your signs down, and asking you respectfully not to clap or cheer.”
Dealing with the applause takes more time, Cardon said.
“This is a difficult time for all of us,” Cardon said. “I request that everyone be respectful.”
Resident Hal Schnitzlein said, “I support you guys. You’re doing a hell of a job. It’s a tough job.”
Schnitzlein added, “I support the reductions. I don’t want to wait four years,” he added, referring to Town Administrator Galen Stearns’ recommendation that budget changes be phased in over that period.
While several community members have said that the reductions would “only” mean a $500 or $600 savings on the tax bill, it was real money for Schnitzlein’s wife, Marian, who said, “Six hundred dollars is three-quarters of a tank of oil for us. It’s six weeks of groceries, 20 weeks of filling the gas tank for the car.”
Schnitzlein patronizes Derry businesses, including doctors, dentists, mechanics and roofers, she said, adding, “I live in Derry and my money stays in Derry.” She donates to Goodwill and the Salvation Army and supports Pinkerton Academy fund-raisers, she said.
Schnitzlein said, “The sky will not fall if we have these cuts. We hired people to serve and protect us. They will do it.”
But resident Phil Brophy warned, “The actions of the Council have real consequences and affect real people.”
Brophy reminded the Council that the School District takes two-thirds of the tax rate and the town has the remaining one-third. He pointed out that he was “amazed” to learn that New Hampshire taxes commercial the same as residential, creating an imbalance.
Resident Corinne Dodge agreed that property taxes are high. “I applaud what all of you are doing to lower them,” she told the Council, adding that she has “very real concerns” about the extent to which proposed cuts could negatively affect the town.
“To broaden the tax rate we need to draw more business,” she said. “But businesses don’t want to come to a town which is not protected against fire and crime.” An earlier budget scenario included the reduction of 16 police and 22 fire personnel.
She told the Council, “I don’t think you realized what it means to put nonprofits at risk and hurt vulnerable families.” An earlier budget scenario by Stearns included cutting funding to nonprofits.
Resident Mary Eisner agreed. “Maintaining our quality of life is challenging,” she said. “I’m asking the Council to keep an open mind.”
Eisner recommended more energy-saving measures, for a lower bottom line, and commended the work of the Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee.
Marc Flattes recommended taking a closer look at Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and awarding the contract, whenever possible, to a Derry firm.
Residents Janet Fairbanks and Robert Waites criticized unions for their efforts to avoid cuts. Fairbanks said, “You have been subject to bullying by Firefighters Union 4392 and their Facebook page.” She asked the Council to reevaluate contracts with Chester and Hampstead, noting that the revenue does not cover the cost of personnel to supply those towns.
Waites said, “You give too much in the contracts. You are afraid of unions. You have no guts.”
Resident Michael Layon took a different tack. He criticized perceived “fear mongering” by the departments that might be affected. He’s not against compassion, Layon said, but for the government to provide compassion, someone else must often be hurt. He favored using private funds to support charities.
In the matter of cutting social services to reduce the tax rate, Layon said, “I am encouraging people to take out their checkbooks instead of asking me to take out mine.”
To keep police and fire budgets down, Layon suggested not filling vacancies, observing, “That’s what private industry is doing.”
The Rev. Susan Walker, pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, said she opposed the cuts in human services. All the churches in the community receive requests for help from people down on their luck, she said, and they would be at a loss without human service agencies to refer them to. “We felt overwhelmed until we realized we had resources,” she said. “There are so many needs.”
Resident Chris Howe asked what percent of the $2 per $1,000 cut would be from the police operating budget, and Cardon said he didn’t know yet.
“How is that possible?” Howe asked. When people applauded, Howe said, “That gives you a sense of what we’re feeling.”
Cardon countered that he wanted Howe to “take a step back” and for the meeting to be respectful.
“When I get my three minutes I’ll step down,” Howe said.
Because of the exchange, Cardon directed that Howe get his original three minutes.
Councilor Al Dimmock told Howe, “Nothing is written in stone – it’s a proposed budget.”
At Dimmock’s remark resident Neil Wetherbee called out, “It’s a public forum” and Cardon gaveled him.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dimmock told Howe. At a roar from the crowd, Cardon used his gavel again.
“We don’t have the final budget yet,” Cardon told Howe.
But Howe insisted, “There has to be a matrix somewhere that informs the budget. What will the impact be?”
Howe stepped down and resident Mark Connors took the microphone and also asked for data. To Cardon he asked, “Nothing is finalized? We have two meetings left.”
Karen Blandford-Anderson echoed the need for better economic development and pushed for someone to “sell” Derry (An economic development coordinator is in Stearns’ latest draft budget; see related story page 1).
“We need a professional,” she said. “We all love Derry, but we can’t ‘sell’ it.”
Recreation staff member Nicole Ferrante pleaded for the seniors she works with and asked for public/private partnerships to keep services flowing.
And resident Jenna Paradise said she would rather “give back” the possible savings in taxes and keep emergency services and human services as they are.
She called for a working relationship between Council and constituents, saying, “You guys are not our parents. You are our brokers. We give you our money and you look for the best places to put it.”
The public hearing on the budget will be Tuesday, April 21, during the Council meeting beginning at 7:30 p.m.