Council Questions Whether to Hire Town Attorney

The Derry Town Council has approved working budgets for Human Services, Finance, the Tax Collector’s department, Assessing and “Other Municipal Obligations.”

The departments are grouped under the heading “Finance” and are supervised by Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs.

The heading of “Other Municipal Obligations” drew the most discussion. Childs said it was a catchall term for funds that affect all departments, including the Rooms and Meals Tax distribution, up for the first time in five years; state reimbursement for the Derry District Court bond; interest from invested funds; and on the expenditure side, the Conservation and Heritage Commissions, Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee, Beaver Lake Improvement Association, the town’s share of the Holiday Parade, property and liability insurance and legal services.

The legal line drew attention from Councilor Michael Fairbanks, who noted that it was up in the proposed budget over last year. The requested amount is $280,000.

It is up $30,000 over last year, Acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau said, based on the increase the town has seen in actual use of the legal budget in recent years.

Member Tom Cardon wondered if it would be prudent for the town to hire its own legal counsel. Budreau said that had been discussed several times in the past. The amount spent for legal varies widely, he pointed out, with $365,000 spent in 2013 and $190,000 so far for 2014. Several cases are nearing resolution, he said, and will soon be “out of the pipeline.”

Chairman Mark Osborne, an attorney, said it was worth looking at. A civil firm will bill by the hour and has no urgency to wrap up a project because it gets paid more, while a town staff attorney would have more motivation to get things done in a timely fashion, he said. He suggested flagging the item for further discussion and research.

Childs, who spent 30 years in the private sector, said that at one place where he worked they hired a staff attorney, but it wasn’t cost-effective because they still had to farm out work for specialized issues.

Councilor Al Dimmock said when the town had its Charter Commission, an attorney hired to help turned back money he didn’t use and told Dimmock, “Derry needs to have its own attorney. You need someone who is looking out for the interests of Derry.

“I support flagging it,” Dimmock said.

Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores objected, “I don’t see where we’re going to save money. That person will need an office, a secretary, equipment.”

“Some years we’d save money, some not,” Osborne countered. “But it would be nice to start out every fiscal year knowing where we stand. To do otherwise is irresponsible.”

Osborne added, “We need to stop saying, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’”

Councilor David Fischer suggested a two-pronged approach. “We can approve the money recommended here,” he said. “Then how we spend it is the second part of the equation.” He proposed splitting the amount into $100,000 for a staff attorney and $150,000 for “specialized services.”

The firm of Boutin and Altieri is the town’s main legal counsel, Budreau said, noting, “On some days we have no one working on legal issues. On other days, their entire staff is working on Derry issues.”

He said the town often needs attorneys with different expertise, such as bond counsel, employment specialists and environmental specialists.

“It would be nice to have our own attorney, but the current practice offers us flexibility,” Councilor Joshua Bourdon said.

“We don’t get these questions answered,” Osborne said, “until we talk about them.”

Other Municipal Obligations was approved 6-1, with Dimmock the dissenter.

Human Services Director Jill McLaughlin spoke to her working budget of $421,408. McLaughlin said that in accordance with RSA 165:1, she is charged with providing temporary emergency assistance to families in Derry who lack “basic resources.” Her working budget is down $22,506, or 5 percent, from last year’s approved $443,914.

Budreau said the number was lower than last year’s in part because of the Health Trust insurance, which came in lower than the previous year.

McLaughlin said she also works to reduce expenses by referring clients to other services when available.

Her budget was unanimously approved.

David Gomez’s Assessing budget was presented at $579,333. Gomez’s requested amount is up $8,573 from last year’s $570,760. His budget was unanimously approved.

Dawn Enwright presented her Tax Collector’s budget of $742,009. It is a 4 percent or $34,172 increase over last year.

Enwright manages property taxes, land use change taxes, timber taxes, motor vehicle registrations, ambulance fees and water and sewer payments. She tries to keep overtime down by having her employees work “staggered” shifts, but she also noted that they take care of the very last customer. “We don’t close our window even after the building doors are locked,” she said. “People tell us, ‘We know we’re not in Massachusetts.’”

Enwright’s working budget was unanimously approved.

Childs presented a Finance budget of $742,577,which was also unanimously approved.