Council Slices Budget, Staff Amid Hundreds of Protesters

Derry taxpayers can expect a reduction in their town tax rate of $1.21, after a sometimes-contentious Town Council meeting where a majority of the Councilors approved the cut.

The May 19 meeting brought more than 200 residents to protest proposed cuts, and they were stationed inside and outside the building. But four Councilors held the majority and prevailed in the decisions leading to the cut.

The approved budget for 2016 will be $40,207,176. It was achieved by some actions people saw coming, such as the closing of a fire station and laying off of emergency personnel, and some actions that even blindsided some Councilors, such as the elimination of the Human Resources Director position (See related stories this page).

The protests began before the 7:30 p.m. meeting, with supporters of public safety gathered outside the building to rally support (See related story page 9). There was standing room only in the Council chambers, with an ancillary room open and people spilling out into the hall.

Though Chairman Tom Cardon warned he would wield his gavel and noted that it was a business meeting with no public comment, several community members were escorted out by police, including a former Town Councilor. A former Councilor who is now a State Representative took himself out but said he’d be back – and on the ballot.

In December, alarmed by Derry’s high tax rate, the Council asked Town Administrator Galen Stearns to look at what a $2.50 reduction in the tax rate would mean. Stearns’ initial presentation was considered too drastic in its cuts, at one point eliminating 49 positions, so the Council asked him to come back with a $2 reduction. The final budget Stearns presented to the Council in April was a $1 reduction in the tax rate, to be achieved in part by not filling four vacant fire positions, trimming police overtime, returning the hydrant rental fee to water users, reducing Public Works overtime, and the most controversial item, using the Undesignated Fund Balance (UFB) to reduce taxes, appropriating $1,694,800 to fund the overlay, veterans exemption and reduce the tax rate.

Many community members, some Councilors and staff objected to the use of the UFB, pointing out that it was needed for emergencies and could not be easily made up.

Cardon’s first act last week was to make a motion to decrease the amount to be taken from the UFB. He proposed using $694,800 to reduce taxes and take care of the veterans and overlay, leaving $1 million in the UFB.

Councilor Joshua Bourdon proposed an amendment to put all the money back in the UFB. “Using hypothetical funds for operating budget purposes and to provide tax relief is a mistake,” Bourdon said. “I would only be in favor of this if it were for an investment. This is kicking the can down the road.”

Bourdon said he didn’t want the next Council to have to “deal with this mess.”
New Councilor Richard Tripp also had a problem with using the UFB, noting that it “artificially reduces taxes.”

The Council asked Chief Financial Officer Susan Hickey how the money would be made up, and Hickey said there were only two ways: unexpended appropriations and unanticipated revenues.

Bourdon made a motion to place all the money back into the UFB, which failed, 4-3. Cardon’s motion to put $1 million back in the UFB and use $694,800 for tax reduction passed, 6-1, with Bourdon the only dissenter.

Positions were cut from Police and Fire (see related stories pages 1 and 3).

In addition, Councilor Mark Osborne proposed cutting two positions from the Department of Public Works (DPW) for a savings of $192,000.

Bourdon objected, pointing to DPW head Mike Fowler’s record of efficiency. “I have reason to suspect,” Bourdon said, “that there are no ‘needless positions’ in Mike’s budget.” And after the winter Derry just saw, Bourdon said he was loathe to cut snowplowing personnel.

“These are cuts made out of thin air,” Bourdon said, a phrase he would repeat over the evening. But the DPW cut passed, 4-3.

Councilor Al Dimmock moved that the Administration Hospitality Budget be reduced from $2,750 to $500. Tripp, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon voted in the affirmative, with Katsakiores and Bourdon opposed.

Final numbers for each department and the vote count are as follows:
• Emergency Management, $57,024, yes, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock, Bourdon and Cardon; no, Tripp and Katsakiores;
• Executive, $1,103,176, including the removal of Human Resources Director and proposed Economic Development position, yes, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon; no, Tripp, Bourdon and Katsakiores;
• Finance, $4,465,776, yes, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon; no, Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon;
• Fire, $10,539,946, including $414,000 to put the hydrant fees back in, cut four staff and close a fire station. Yes, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon; no, Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon.
There was a Freudian Fire Slip in the brief discussion before the vote, when Cardon said “closing the Hampstead Road Fire Station” and Bourdon said, “I thought we hadn’t decided what station to close.”
Cardon amended his resolution. Ironically, a fire siren went off in the background during this vote. But the pattern held, with Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon voting no and the other four voting yes on the fire budget.
• The town’s libraries survived the cuts, with a combined budget for the Taylor Library and Derry Public Library at $1,410,190. All seven Councilors voted in favor of the library budget.
• Planning came in at $256,387 and Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon voted in favor, with Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon against it.
• The police budget, including the elimination of four positions, came in at $8,292,012. Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon voted in favor of it with Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon objecting.
• Public Works, a budget of $8,404,634, which includes removing two positions. Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon voted in the affirmative with Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon voting no.
• Town Clerk/Elections, $185,638, Fischer, Osborne, Katsakiores, Dimmock and Cardon, yes; Tripp, no.
• Wastewater, $2,357,866, yes, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon; no, Katsakiores, Tripp and Bourdon.
• Water and sewer, $2,551,611, all in favor.
• Cable, $324,077, Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon in favor; Bourdon, Katsakiores and Tripp against.
• TIF (Tax Increment Financing) District: $246,878. All voted in favor.

The Council also approved a Capital Improvement Plan of $1,032,871, with Fischer, Osborne, Dimmock and Cardon in favor of it and Tripp, Katsakiores and Bourdon voting no.

There was visible unrest when Cardon announced the final tally and that the vote would reduce the tax rate by $1.21. One man shouted, “You destroyed the town for $1.21?”

The meeting had already had one extension to continue after 10 p.m. When residents asked for the public forum on the agenda, Cardon said no and adjourned the meeting.

But the people had their say anyway, with community member Jenna Paradise telling the Councilors, “Shame on you!” and Bonita Lavallee reading a prepared statement. Cardon, FIscher and Osborne left immediately through the Council’s private entrance. Dimmock left surrounded by friends and supporters, and Katsakiores, Bourdon and Tripp stayed to mingle with the crowd.

The 2016 budget will go into effect July 1, 2015.

“We escorted 12 to 15 people from the meeting and everyone was cooperative with us as they left,” Derry Police Capt. Vern Thomas said. “Though they were upset, nearly every one of them paused to shake the officers’ hands and thank them for their service to the Town.