Public Wants Hearing, Level-Funded Budget; Special Meeting Finally Set

Brenda Willis spoke for many Derry residents when she gave an emotional “what if” at the end of the May 5 Town Council meeting. “Are you going to call a mother and say, ‘Sorry, we couldn’t get to your kid under the ice because we didn’t have staff?’ Are you going to call a daughter and say, ‘Sorry, your parents didn’t make it because we didn’t have staff?’ Are you going to call me and say, ‘Sorry, your daughter didn’t make it, we couldn’t get there in time?'” she asked.

Derry residents had what may be their final say on Town Administrator Galen Stearns’ proposed FY 16 budget and some earlier budget scenarios presented by Stearns at the request of the Town Council. While many residents have called for lower taxes, and several of the current Council were elected on tax-cutting pledges, the overflow crowd in the Council Chambers on the evening of May 5 urged caution in the cuts or no cuts. The residents circled back to several talking points, including the following:

Undesignated fund balance
Stearns’ proposal for FY 16 includes using a portion of the Undesignated Fund Balance, or UFB, to make up for the $1 cut. The $1,694,800 would be used to fund the overlay and veterans’ exemption and to offset taxes. Removing the $1,694,800 would still leave the town with a legal amount in the fund balance. While Stearns intends to offset the amount with revenues, residents weren’t so sure.
“I don’t like the idea,” former Councilor Michael Fairbanks said. “We need to consider the ramifications – next year we’ll be in the hole. It’s a bad practice.”

Property owner and Realtor Steve Trefethen said he wasn’t sure the money could be replaced and noted that even Chief Financial Officer Susan Hickey had expressed doubt in an earlier meeting. Former Councilor Neil Wetherbee called the prospect “alarming.” He was also critical of a plan Stearns had to reassess utilities, noting that, “The courts will fight this.”

Gordon Graham, a local attorney and chair of the Downtown Committee, is also a former Councilor and remembered when the UFB was established. “We were borrowing in anticipation of taxes,” he said. “It has taken us years to build it up.” Graham reminded the Council and audience that the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration recommends retaining 8 to 17 percent of the UFB, including town, school and county funds, and that Derry’s policy has been 12 percent.

“An adequate fund balance is critical to our financial health,” Graham said. “If we start using it it will be addictive, like heroin.”
“I can’t see using the UFB,” Donald Burgess said. “We’ll end up paying more in the future. “People don’t want these cuts,” Burgess said. “They are not happy with their taxes, but they would prefer not to see these cuts.”

In his opinion, Burgess said, the Council wasn’t listening to the people. Burgess is a member of the Highway Safety Committee, recently elected chair, and a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. In protest against the proposed cuts, he resigned both positions.

Economic Development
Resident Marc Flattes, also a member of the Planning Board and Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee, urged caution on creating the position of Economic Development Director, in Stearns’ budget at $115,000. “We need to create a subcommittee,” Flattes said. “We need to get our house in order first.”

Resident and Heritage chair Karen Blandford-Anderson lobbied for an Economic Development Director. She pointed to the recent relocation of the Keene Pumpkin Fest to Laconia and asked, “How many towns pursued the Pumpkin Fest?” While it wasn’t necessarily the right choice for Derry, she wondered if other opportunities could be snagged with a full-time Economic Development Director.

Someone has to make economic development happen, Wetherbee said, “and it’s up to you guys.” Graham pointed out that the purpose of a Planner and an Economic Development Director may be at cross-purposes. The planner is the staff representative to the quasi-judicial Planning Board and has to help it make the tough decisions, which could be at odds with courting new businesses.

Public safety
Discussion in earlier meetings centered on proposed or possible cuts to police, fire and emergency management. While Stearns’ current $1 budget cuts four fire positions by attrition and trims $25,000 from police overtime, residents worried that even those cuts weren’t worth the danger to their lives and property. Resident Jay Madnick urged filling the vacant positions, noting that without them there’s no one to staff the tanker. He lives on Windham Depot Road and there is no water source nearby, he said.

Bryan Dizon, a former sheriff’s deputy, observed that “minutes count” and he doesn’t want to wait for emergency services just to save $250, the estimated amount to be saved on an average home’s taxes. But resident Janet Fairbanks, said, “How are services affected when we’re down four or five firemen? Is anybody not being served? I haven’t heard any complaints.”

The process
In the public hearing and the regular public forum portion of the meeting, residents expressed concern about the process by which the Council is going about this budget. Mark Connors asked if the Council was still hearing from the residents who wanted the deep cuts. “If you’re not, you need to reconsider this,” Connors said. “The people who want the tax cuts aren’t necessarily doing their homework.”

Wetherbee noted that the townspeople had heard no information on a possible $2 cut to the tax rate, the scenario envisioned by the Council before Stearns brought in the current budget. “Will that happen without public input? If it does, it’s a disgrace to transparency,” Wetherbee said. Graham agreed, noting, “We have been sitting here for weeks and have not seen the Council take a vote. Can we comment on what you plan on doing before you do it?” Resident Chris Howe took the microphone to observe, “People are coming out in droves to tell you they want to pay their taxes. How many want a level-funded budget?” Three-fourths of the audience stood up.

Willis asked, “If you plan to vote on the budget May 19, when is the public hearing?” “There is no public hearing,” Chairman Tom Cardon replied. “We have been taking public comment for the past couple of months.” “That is unfair,” Willis countered. “It’s hard to comment on something you don’t know anything about.”

Resident Jenna Paradise said, “We are not getting feedback from you guys. You’re like deer in the headlights. You’re not hearing what we’re saying.” Paradise said she would like to see more of a roundtable format. She asked Councilor David Fischer where he had gotten his original $2.50 cut to the tax rate, which was modified by Councilors to $2 and Stearns to $1. “We will vote the budget up or down,” Cardon said.

Paradise said, “So all of this (the public input) has been fluff? Nothing is going to move?” “This has been going on for months,” Cardon countered. “I think about it all the time.” “You will make a blanket decision for the community and we will have no idea,” Paradise said to applause. The meeting was extended 10 minutes. Acting on a suggestion that a special meeting be held, Connors said it had to be posted and Cardon told him to sit down. After the public forum was opened, Connors noted that the next meeting was in two weeks and that the Council was scheduled to vote then. “Will you be voting on this budget?” Connors asked. “We may make changes,” Cardon said.

Graham said while the town charter doesn’t indicate that a public hearing should be held, it would be a “best practice” to do one. “There’s nothing that says you can’t,” Graham said. Councilor Joshua Bourdon suggested having a special meeting that coming Tuesday, with a public forum and a non-binding preliminary vote. But Cardon told him it wasn’t “agenda-ized.”

Bourdon advocated for the following Thursday, but Cardon again said it wasn’t on the agenda. “You can call a meeting with 48 hours notice,” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said, but Cardon said, “It’s not on the agenda. We will not discuss it.” Fischer said. “All the Council will carefully consider your input,” and Katsakiores said, “I have listened to all of you.” And Richard Tripp, the newest Councilor, thanked the crowd for coming out. “If it takes a crisis to get people involved, so be it,” Tripp said.

The Council later decided to hold a special meeting and posted it for Tuesday, May 12, in order for each Councilor to express his or her intentions regarding the FY 2016 budget in a non-binding forum. The special meeting was to take place after Nutfield News press time and will be reported on in the May 21 edition. The meeting is allowable under the Derry Town Charter, Section 5:9.