Council to Hear Budget Impacts from Department Heads April 21

The citizens who signed a petition asking the Town Council to hear budget input from department heads got their wish, with the Council voting 6-0-1 to invite the managers to the April 21 budget hearing and allow them to be questioned by residents.

The vote came in the wake of a petition signed by 720 registered voters. It was sponsored by former Councilor Neil Wetherbee and circulated largely at the March election.

Members of the current Council have said in previous meetings that they didn’t want to go “line by line” through the budget, with new Chair Tom Cardon remembering an extensive discussion of a lawnmower last budget season. Some members have said it is not their role and that they trust, and hired, Town Administrator Galen Stearns to present them with a budget.

Stearns was originally asked to do preliminary research on a $2.50 cut to the current tax rate. When the changes produced by such a cut proved too radical, Councilors then asked him to look at a $2 per $1,000 cut. The second budget scenario was criticized by residents who feared that it would make too deep a dent in emergency services, social services and other areas.

Stearns’ current budget proposal is a $1 per $1,000 cut.

The petition read, “To The Derry Town Council. Being a registered voter in the Town of Derry and in the interest of transparency regarding proposed significant budget cuts affecting many Town departments, we, the undersigned, call on the Derry Town Council to publicly discuss and debate all budgetary impacts with each individually affected department head in advance of a public hearing and Town Council vote on the FY2016 budget.”

The discussion on the petition was the last item on a crowded agenda at the April 7 meeting. Stearns told the Council he had forwarded the petition to legal counsel for their opinion and advised that “You have to act on it within 60 days.”

The petition was not listed on the agenda as part of the public hearings and Cardon said, “The hearing was not advertised.” But Town Clerk Denise Neale said letters had been sent to all the signers saying there was a public hearing.

“I want to discuss this now,” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said.

The Council opened the public hearing and Wetherbee was the first speaker. He first clarified that it wasn’t “his” petition but that he was presenting it as part of a group of people.

Also, he said, the petition says nothing about going line-by-line. “It is about transparency,” Wetherbee said. “People just want information. The public hearing on the budget is in two weeks and we’ve had no information. What are we supposed to comment on?”

Resident Mark Connors reminded the Council and audience that there had been two petitions, the paper one circulated at the polls and one online. Cardon said the online petition was not covered in the charter and Connors recommended looking at that because “We are in 2015. Even the White House has a petition site.”

“Or,” he said half-jokingly, “I’ll start a petition to get it done.”

Resident Leslie Keans pointed to the volume of signatures. “You are only required to have 100 and this one had 700,” she said. She added that she didn’t think line-by-line was necessary but that it was important for department heads to come before the Council.

“Otherwise we’ll be saying, ‘I didn’t know the cuts meant that!’” she said.

State Rep. Brian Chirichiello, a former Town Councilor, said it wasn’t necessarily about supporting or not supporting the cuts but about transparency. “We want to see your process,” he said.

Resident Michael Layon said, “We want to see, ‘Here’s what the cuts are, are they reasonable?’” He quoted the New Hampshire Bill of Rights Article 8, which calls for government to be “open, accessible, accountable and responsible.”

Scott Savard pressed the Council as to whether it had already met with department heads. Cardon said some Councilors have and Stearns has, but they have not met with the managers as a group.

“The implication is huge and will last for years,” Savard said of proposed cuts. “You need to sit down, hash it out, see what it looks like on paper. Why haven’t you done this?”

Cardon reminded him that the public hearing wasn’t a question and answer session.

To a question from resident and School Board member Brenda Willis, Stearns said he had met with department heads multiple times.

Willis told the Council, “I hope you will too. You owe it to them, you owe it to the citizens who are taxpayers – and who voted for you.”

Resident and Recreation Department employee Nicole Ferrante noted that the residents had asked for the same transparency with the School Board, and the School Board responded by taking its budget proposal to the Parent Teacher Association and other venues. “Your goal is great and ambitious,” Ferrante told the Council. “But to do it without the department heads will result in urgency and chaos.”

Stearns said the department heads will be at the hearing April 21 and available to answer questions.

After the hearing closed, Katsakiores said, “In light of the testimony we’ve just heard, I recommend that we as a Council invite the department heads in. Not to go line-by-line, but for us to ask questions and for the public to ask questions. Not to do so will be shirking the duty we took on when we ran for Council.”

Councilor David Fischer, who proposed the original $2.50 cut to the tax rate, said, “I have asked for a number of times for a survey to identify the needs, wants and interests of this town, so we don’t have to do this at this time of the year.” Transparency is important, Fischer agreed. “But line-by-line? No.”

Katsakiores reiterated that in her support of the petition, she did not say line-by-line. “I want the department heads to be able to come in, and for us to be able to question them,” she said.

Councilor Joshua Bourdon said, “I am in support of listening to the department heads and finding out what they need and why.”

Fischer added one caveat: “I don’t believe in surprises. I’d like to hear what practical suggestions the department heads have to reduce costs.”

The motion was to invite the department heads to come before the Council and answer questions during the budget hearing. Councilor Al Dimmock abstained, with his reasoning being, “We shouldn’t have to have this discussion. It is our duty and their duty to get together to discuss budgets. We need their input, we need them here.”