Online Petition Seeks to Avoid Emergency Services Cuts

While supervisory personnel and the heads of unions declined to comment on a proposed $2 per $1,000 tax rate cut, a petition circulating on has drawn 600 of its hoped-for 750 signatures from people who don’t want to see Derry’s tax cuts applied to emergency services.

Public officials, including Town Administrator Galen Stearns, remained mum on the $2 per $1,000 Stearns has been asked by the Town Council to cut from the tax rate. Stearns was scheduled to present his 2016 budget to the Council Tuesday night, March 3, after press time.

Stearns was originally asked by the Council to look at reducing the tax rate by $2.50 per $1,000. When those cuts appeared to be extreme the Council directed him to prepare a budget that would reduce the tax rate by $2 per $1,000.

Stearns wrote in a letter to collective bargaining representatives dated Feb. 19 that to execute a cut of $2 per $1,000 on the tax rate would necessitate a $6 million cut in the budget, and as personnel constitute two-thirds of the town budget, that would most likely result in a cut of as many as 49 positions.

Stearns asked the union representatives to be willing to come to the table to discuss “compensation reductions” and other strategies to make ends meet without cutting jobs.

Acting Fire Chief Michael Gagnon referred comments on the matter to Stearns and Captain Vern Thomas, the spokesperson for the Derry Police Department, said, “Anything we say right now would be speculative. While the cuts would have a serious impact on our ability to perform our jobs, we feel it would be best to comment after the budget is presented to the Council and we see what they plan to do with it.”

But the petition, originated by Derry resident Michael Hughes, was gathering momentum and signatures as of press time. The petition reads:

“The Derry Town Council has directed the Town Administrator to drastically reduce the tax rate. As many as 49 employees could be laid off, including 16 police officers and 22 firefighters.

“Tax reduction sounds good. However, estimates have been made that it will save the average Derry homeowner between $30 and $40 per month. Most of us spend more than that on coffee.

“Is it worth this risk? Are we ready to reduce our police force by 16 officers? How long has it been since it was staffed at that level? Are we ready to consider closing fire stations? Are we willing to wait when we dial 911, or be told there’s no one to respond? Are we willing to risk the safety of our police officers unnecessarily? Derry is the fourth largest community in the state. We have a right to expect emergency services that reflect the size and needs of our town.”

The petition continues, “Derry’s master plan (2010) does not include recommendations of staff reductions. On Feb. 17, 2015 an auditing firm and town officials reported Derry was in good financial health. Tax reduction is a good goal, but not at the risk of community welfare, safety, and overall quality of life. Significant cuts should be further studied. Potential effects should be presented to the public in a timely manner, and ample opportunity for public input should be sought.”

Hughes’ petition concludes, “The Derry Town Council should proceed slowly, deliberately, and responsibly with the goal of tax reduction, without compromising public safety and town services.”

Jennifer Lund of Plaistow, saying she has close family in Derry, wrote along with her signature, “Many with medical issues that could be life threatening in the case of extended wait for EMS or NO EMS is very scary! This is not acceptable and these jobs must be saved for emergencies and for the well being of these employees….My son lives in Derry and has been treated by EMS and those times may have saved his life. Thank you. JL.”

Pat Asmussen of Derry wrote, “Resident of senior housing – public safety services used frequently.”

And Kelly Mahony of Derry wrote, “Ruthless cuts to the budget will make a long term effect on Derry as the money cannot be added into the budget as easily as it can be cut due to the tax cap. Drastic cuts will cost us much more in property values (and possibly lives) than the tax cut will give the average homeowner.”

Derry resident Andrew Loranger wrote: “While I commend lowering the tax rate, I absolutely oppose any reduction in emergency staff. According to this direction, the Derry Town Council and the Town Administrator are basically saying the savings of $40 a month is worth someone’s life as well as the careers of 38 emergency staff… Sorry, my life and my family’s life is worth more than $40 a month. Instead let’s focus on the overwhelming amount of Heroin use among residents 16-35 years old? Instead of laying off, we need to focus on the epidemic that is growing right in front of you. There are many, many ways to reduce the budgetary costs of our town or to justify the costs… Just open your eyes!”

Hughes declined to discuss the petition, saying while he is a Derry police sergeant, he wrote the petition as a resident and taxpayer.

Former Town Councilor Neil Wetherbee raised Stearns’ pay in a letter to the editor (see page 4). Council Chair Mark Osborne said in a phone interview Monday that “the Council’s point of view is that we’ll be happy to ask everyone to make the concessions. We have spoken of the concessions in a general sense.”

Osborne said, “It would be possible. But have we given him a specific directive to cut his own pay? No.”

Osborne added, “It’s no secret that we’re looking to cut costs but at the same time save as many jobs as we can. We can’t do it alone, and we hope people will work with us.”