Year in Review: Looking Back at 2015 in Derry

It was a tumultuous year for Derry.

The year 2015 saw the town split and come back together over budget issues and an unprecedented Special Election. It was the Year That Was, with a May 19 budget vote rippling out to touch nearly every aspect of town life and an Oct. 13 Special Election renewing many people’s faith in democracy.

The budget

The Derry Town Council has long been concerned about the town’s tax rate, which is the highest in the state. Several of the current Councilors ran on a pledge to lower taxes, and in the May 19 budget vote they made good on their promise.

A majority of the Council – Albert Dimmock, David Fischer, Mark Osborne and chair Thomas Cardon – voted to support a budget of $40,207,126, a $1.21 reduction on the tax rate. The new budget called for reductions to police staffing, police overtime, fire staffing, fire overtime, public works staffing, public works overtime, and more. Residents protested the budget and especially the cuts in services, with protests outside the Municipal Building and many residents removed from meetings by police. But the majority prevailed and the budget went into effect July 1.

Fire Station Closed

The year was a baptism by fire for Fire Chief Michael Gagnon, who took over when George Klauber retired at the end of January. After the Council budget vote, Gagnon deemed that the Hampstead Road Fire Station, which serves the East Derry area, could be best dispensed with, and the station closed June 30 with about 100 people gathering to bid it farewell. The town began operating with three stations the next morning.

The station reopened in October after the Special Election (see below).

Then Came Petitions

While most of the public safety job cuts went unfilled due to attrition, residents still objected, noting that the Fire Department was already running on less person power than national organizations recommended. They weren’t happy about the police cuts and public works cuts, the closure of a Fire Station or the elimination of the Human Resources Director job, and they made their dissent public with a petition drive.

Residents opposed to the cuts researched the “referendum petition” option in the Town Charter and presented eight referendum petitions in two sessions at Upper Village Hall. A Referendum Petition, should it garner signatures of 20 percent of the number of voters at the last town election, must be brought before the Council and the Council must take a vote to overturn its previous vote. If the Council does not reconsider its vote, it is legally required to hold a Special Election.

The petitions required about 200 signatures and gained more than 1,000. In a July 28 meeting, however, the majority of the Council declined to revisit the issues or to hold the Special Election.

Three residents, Jenna Paradise, Brian Chirichiello and Neil Wetherbee, took the town to court, filing their suit on Aug. 13. Judge David Anderson ruled in favor of the petitioners on Sept. 14. The Council appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the appeal was rejected and a Special Election was set for Oct. 13.

Special Election

The Special Election Oct. 13 had Town Clerk Denise Neale running out of ballots for the first time in recent history, as thousands of residents made their wishes known on restoring the cut positions and the fire station. More than 6,000 ballots were cast, an impressive number for a non-Presidential election.

The petitioners won, sometimes by a narrow margin and sometimes by a wider one, and the Council voted Oct. 20 to restore the cut funds through taxes.

But the real “winner” was democracy, with people on all sides of all issues thrilled to see so many casting a vote.

Threat to Derryfest

The ripples from the budget vote spread to one of the town’s most beloved institutions, Derryfest, the town fair traditionally held the third weekend of September. While the event is run by a private group, the Derry Arts Council, it uses town employees and equipment to help with the day-long festival at MacGregor Park. With his overtime budget cut in the May 19 vote, Parks and Recreation Director Eric Bodenrader informed the Arts Council and its Derryfest Committee that he could no longer provide support for the event.

Team members, citing a drop in volunteers, announced that the event would not take place in 2015, in order to give them time to regroup. But a recruiting campaign brought new helpers, the committee worked out a billing system with the town, and Derryfest took place as scheduled on Sept. 19.

Loss of Town Administrator

Galen Stearns of Windham joined the Derry town staff in November 2014 as town administrator, after two separate searches for an administrator to replace John Anderson, who ended his relationship with the town in October 2013.

In December of that year Stearns was charged by the Council to craft a budget reducing the tax rate by $2.50. Stearns brought in a budget, but the Council deemed it unworkable and charged him to come back with a $2 reduction on the tax rate.

Stearns came back with a $1 reduction that was unacceptable to several of the Councilors, and they crafted their own budget with a $1.21 reduction. Stearns went on medical leave in July and his employment was terminated in October. While he didn’t make the budget cuts some Councilors wanted, Councilors said there were other issues involved in the dismissal.

Chief Financial Officer Susan Hickey was appointed Interim Town Administrator, and the town reopened its search for an Administrator this fall.

Human Resources Restructuring

One of the cuts protested by the petitioners was that of cutting the Human Resources Director. The position was eliminated, saving the town $150,000, and former Director Larry Budreau left Derry’s service June 30. Residents argued that the town operation was as big as some corporations, and that eliminating that position would affect its functioning.

The HR Director was one of the petitioned items and funding was restored in the Oct. 13 Special Election. However, the Council decided not to hire a full-time HR director, based on a report from Municipal Resources, Inc., on the department’s efficiency. An HR staff member’s position was restructured to accommodate much of Budreau’s tasks, and the Council voted to hire a part-time HR assistant to help. Part of the saved money is also being used to create and hire a part-time Economic Development position.

Push for Economic Development

Residents and government officials alike have said that the town’s tax rate will not be significantly reduced by cuts, and they have pushed for increased sources of revenue, especially in business and industrial development. The Economic Development Committee, chaired by Cardon, is reaching out to the business community and trying to make Derry more attractive.

The committee partnered with members of the business community to promote two events, “Here’s Looking At You, Derry,” a “Casablanca”-themed event in October, and a family-friendly “Polar Express” event in December.

The committee lost a vital member, Janis DelPozzo, with her death in October, but continues to look at ways to revive Derry’s business community and widen the tax base. A Property Maintenance Committee chaired by Public Works Director Mike Fowler is aggressively tackling blighted property, with an aim toward making Derry more attractive for residents, current businesses and potential businesses. The Property Maintenance group’s biggest coup this year was the demolition of the former Broadway Pets building.

New home for Next Charter School

The Next Charter School was big news in 2014, when the Derry School Board made a controversial move to relocate it in the West Running Brook Middle School. Parents objected for reasons ranging from displacing an eighth-grade “pod” to having the high-schoolers in too-close proximity to middle-school students.

This spring the board found a new home for Next, in the former Tech Ed space in the basement of Gilbert H. Hood Middle School, and after renovations the charter school moved in this fall with little fanfare and no complaints from residents.

School Budget

The Derry School Board’s 2015-16 budget of $80,177,113 was approved by voters in the March 10 election, after a challenge in the Jan. 31 Deliberative Session from residents concerned about taxes. In the Deliberative Session, resident Lynn Perkins proposed a cut of $520,000, equivalent to eight classroom teachers. The amendment failed and the original proposed budget was passed on to the voters, who approved it, 804 to 284.

The School Board saw the loss of former chairman Neal Ochs, who died after a battle with cancer.

The district’s Facilities Committee, under the direction of former superintendent John Moody, has been distilling the Facilities Report commissioned in 2014 and will give a final report to the board some time this winter.

This, That and The Other Thing

• The Energy and Environmental Advisory Committee (EEAC) headed up a successful effort to have more Derry homeowners commit to solar energy. The committee also lost a longtime member with the death of Thomas Minnon.

• The Taylor Library in East Derry responded to a challenge to find services distinct from the Derry Public Library by establishing Sunday hours.

• The Town of Derry finished construction on its new Transfer Station, which will open in January (See related story page 1).

• Pinkerton Academy opened its doors to the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra, which has taken up residence in the Stockbridge Theatre. The semi-private high school also closed a deal with Candia for a long-term tuition contract that will be voted on by Candia residents in March.

• The Highway Safety Committee saw another passage, that of longtime chair Tom Caron. Scott Savard is the new chair.

• After 30 years of back and forth, the town signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the New Hampshire Department of Transportation committing Derry to its share of the Exit 4A project, a proposed exit off Interstate 93 that is expected to relieve congestion at Exits 4 and 5 and bring new economic life to Derry and Londonderry.