As he concludes his years as Antrim’s Town Administrator and prepares to move to his new Derry job, Galen Stearns recalled the time a company came to Antrim with a request to put up solar panels. “They said, ‘We’ll pay you to let us put up the solar panels,’” Stearns said. “Public Service Company of New Hampshire will give a town a credit for every unit that’s produced.”
He paused for a moment, then said, “Have you considered your capped landfill for a solar site?”
Stearns was already thinking Derry when he came to the Municipal Building for a meet-and-greet Thursday, Oct. 23. Though the session was attended only by three journalists, a Town Councilor and an out-of-town Realtor, Stearns treated the turnout like a full house as he tossed out ideas for helping Derry.
Stearns had held a similar forum with town employees earlier that day, and was pleased at their attendance. “Their biggest thing,” he said, “is that they want to feel appreciated for the services the town provides. They want to show the positives of what they do.”
He observed that sometimes residents tend to think it’s “routine” when police or fire respond to their concerns, and employees would like more recognition. “The majority of the people,” he said, “want to do a good job,.”
One of Stearns’ strengths is putting a financial house in order. When he came to Antrim the town was $1.3 million in debt. As he leaves, it will have $1.1 million in surplus. “The biggest thing was solving what they were doing wrong,” he said.
He’s a proponent of finding new revenue, and one way to do that is to attract business, Stearns said.
Councilor Al Dimmock agreed. Pointing to the expansion of town water and sewer up Route 28 toward Windham, Dimmock said, “If someone puts 40 houses on one of those parcels of land, it won’t benefit Derry.”
Stearns agreed. Expanding the infrastructure was a good move, he said, pointing out, “Industry needs water and sewer.”
Realtor Ralph Valentine, who owns several parcels in Derry, observed, “Derry is one of the more economic development-friendly towns in the area.”
Stearns agreed, but added that it needs to be even more so. He’s a proponent of streamlining regulations, noting that developers don’t like coming to Town Hall and being faced with impenetrable red tape. “It needs to be user-friendly,” he said.
Derry will be a learning curve after Antrim, which has a three-person Board of Selectmen and a traditional Town Meeting form of government. But Stearns said he’s up to the challenge, pointing out that as a Windham selectman, he worked with the SB2 form of government.
And as a Windham selectman, he watched the town grow from 5,000 people to 13,000. The demographics are similar to Derry’s, he said, noting, “The tax burden is on the people.”
Stearns is used to wearing many public service hats. As a selectman, he also served on the School Board during a tricky time for any town – Windham was building its own high school.
“Everyone thought I was nuts,” he said. But he put the best interest of each body first with whatever hat he was wearing at the time, and the school was built, he said.
Stearns said he hopes to establish good relations with the Derry Cooperative School District. “I can work with school boards,” he said, adding, “There are so many expenses the school district has no control over.”
He’s not autocratic, Stearns added, saying, “I like to listen.”
What does he hope to look back on in five years? “I hope to see the town with a positive image for both the people and the business community,” he said. “I hope people will look at Derry as a community that they want to move to, both with their businesses and families.”
And he’ll continue to look for bargains and deals. During his years in Antrim he engineered the purchase of a salt shed for under $10,000. “My road agent came into the office and said, ‘I know a guy who bought a Quonset hut and never put it up. It’s 40×60 feet, and he’s asking $5,000.” Stearns immediately thought “salt shed,” and cinched the deal. Then, he said, “I went to my Board of Selectmen and said, ‘I just bought a salt shed.’”
The board approved a warrant article for $4,300 for the foundation, and the shed was built for a fraction of the estimated $50,000.