Litchfield Deliberative Session: Exploring the Five Petition Articles

February 8, 2019

 

 

Staff photo by Doug Robinson Nearly half of the entire Litchfield Fire Department spoke of their confidence and respect on behalf of their current fire chief.

 

by Doug Robinson

The auditorium at Campbell High School began to fill well before the deliberative session starting time of 10 a.m.  More than 100 residents came to debate and discuss the 14 articles that would appear on the upcoming ballot.

A feeling of expectation filled the auditorium.  On the ballot would be nine selectmen’s articles, and five petition articles.  That air of anticipation centered on the five petition articles.

All five petition articles were written and presented to the Litchfield Selectmen with at least the minimum requirement of 25 signatures from Litchfield registered voters. John Cabral is the author of all five petitioned articles.

Moderator Frank Byron, pro-tem, took to the microphone and welcomed the voters to the annual Litchfield Deliberative meeting.  The selectmen sat on one side of the stage, and the budget committee sat on the opposite side of the stage.  While the scene looked adversarial, the budget committee and the board of selectmen had seen eye to eye as both government bodies examined the proposed budget recommendations.  In short, they agreed with each other.

The uncontested approval of the 2019 operating budget of $6,757,953 was passed immediately. While this budget represents a $524,430 increase over last year’s budget, the proposed 2019 budget was actually only $41,000 more than last year’s default budget.

The proposed budget would add $0.08 to the tax rate and increase the “total proposed increase to $4.81.”  For a home valued at $350,000, this tax increase represents $52.50.

The departmental breakdowns were as follows:

Police administration received an increase of $84,828 due to the increase of one police officer.  Information Technology received a $10,200 increase due to increased internet access and equipment requirements.

General government’s $9,100 increase was reflective of estimated increases in electric and propane costs.  The fire department’s budget grew by $44,600 due to wages, overtime, and replacement of equipment.  Fire hydrants increased by $34,017 because Pennichuck monthly costs will increase. Finally, the bond payment for the new fire station had a $258,960 increase.

Road maintenance +$8,000, vendor payments, +6,000, and Parks and Recreation, +$1,500 also contributed to the budget increase.

The proposed new tax impact for the town side (the school budget will be discussed next) will be $4.81.  For a house valued at $350,000, the estimated increase will be $28.00.

The following all passed to the ballot as written, without too much discussion:  Articles 3, Police Contract; Article 4, Human Services; Article 5, Town Earned Time; Article 6, Technology and Communication; Article 7, Land Purchase and Article 9, Keno.  While the wording may have changed, the intent of the articles did not change.

A short break was commenced once the selectmen’s articles were discussed, and then the “elephant in the room” — petition articles 10 through 14, written by John Cabral were presented for discussion.

Petition Article 10 seeks “to implement one of the recommendations from the 2018 Municipal Resources Inc. report.  The study recommended more man-hours for the Litchfield Highway Department.  Currently the department does not have the proper staffing to provide appropriate safety standards on the job.”

Cabral stated, “The research for this article started when the culvert on Brickyard was blocked up by beavers, I couldn’t believe how many times I witnessed our current road agent working alone trying to resolve the issue.  I continued my research and found this was not the only time he was working alone.  This department can’t run effectively without more help.”

He continued, “What I’d like to see happen is for us to form a committee, with one board member, one budget committee member, the department head and four residents.  You then have résumés submitted and the committee will then perform background checks and interviews to confirm the qualifications and experience is what our town is looking for.  At that point all qualified applicants will then be placed on the ballot.  This will also help to ensure fair and equal employment opportunities.”

Town selectmen responded with stating that they “Fully support the MRI study and that they had hired a full-time employee last January.  They also stated that the report discussed renaming the Highway Department to Department of Public Works.  With that change, the Road Agent’s name should be changed to Director of Public Works, thus creating a unified Department of Highways and Streets, Solid Waste, and Facility Maintenance (including recreational fields.)

Registered voters approached the microphone and stated their concerns about going back to the “good ‘ol boy” network days in the running of Litchfield.  The universal comments were that the board of selectmen and the town administrator were necessary and important with the hiring and selection of the proper personnel for this town department.

Next up, Article 11.

It says, “To see if the Town will vote to reverse the Code Enforcement Officer, Health Inspector, and Zoning Administrator (three positions in one) back to it prior successful operation as a single appointed position, reporting to the Board of Selectmen, and being independent of the fire department.”

Cabral supported his position by saying, “This article was started when our prior code enforcement officer resigned from his position due to reasons unknown per the BOS and Town Administrator.  There was a petition submitted with well over 200 signatures of Litchfield residents requesting his reinstatement.  It is now six months later and the residents have heard nothing from our board of selectmen, after inquiring several times.  They took this position and tried to move in a different direction that is not favored by the voters.  We need to ensure fair and equal employment opportunity for all town employees.”

Opponents to this petition article commented that the three present positions are necessary due to the complexities and legalities required of that position.  “You do not hire a plumber to do electrical work,” commented one resident.  Residents commented that they need the “best people we can get in the specific jobs and we need the interviewing process to continue by the BOS.”

Petition Article 12 recommends the town vote to discontinue the appointment of the Highway Agent, and to authorize the town to elect the agent.

Here, Cabral says, “I wish to adopt an elected position for our road agent.  This position ran more effectively and efficiently having our current road agent working as an elected position.  Our reason for this petition warrant article: When this position was voted on to change from an elected position to an appointed position, it passed by a very, very small margin.  Many voters feel this position will run much smoother as an elected position.  This will also help to ensure fair and equal employment opportunity.”

Once again, the voters expressed their concern with setting their town government back to the “good ‘ol boy” network.  The general agreement was that the present hiring system was working properly.

Petition Article 13 asks the town to reverse the appointment of the Fire Chief to the 1980s system of an elected Fire Chief.

Cabral stated his opinion as, “To Several taxpayers, they feel the spending for the management of this department is getting out of hand.  Having the highest paid part-time fire chief, along with bonus and merit increases are not ok with taxpayers.  Taxpayers want transparency with this department and more importantly the spending.  We live in a community of approximately 8400 taxpayers.  They don’t want to be compared to Milford, Bedford, Nashua, or Manchester.  Comparison is not necessary, taxpayers know what they want and need.  It shouldn’t take the BOS having costly MRI studies to figure that out.  Open concept meetings with our BOS and Fire Chief are what are suggested.

“What I’d like to see happen is for us to form a committee with one board member, one budget committee member, the department head and four residents.  You then have résumés submitted and the committee will then perform background checks and interviews, to confirm the qualifications and experience is what our town is looking for.  At that point all qualified applicants will then be placed on the ballot.”

More than a dozen firefighters and equal number of voters approached the governing boards with their support of their current fire chief.  They discussed his qualifications, his communication style, dedication, and what he has brought to the community of Litchfield.

The fire chief also spoke for himself telling all that the salary is the salary, and “yes, I know that I make the same amount as a plow driver.  And that is ok with me.  He then reviewed the positive changes and the important partnerships that had been created within the town of Litchfield during his tenure to keep the people of Litchfield safe.  By a voice vote, the residents agreed with the BOS “not to recommend” this petition.

Petition Article 14 originally asked to “see if the town will vote to discontinue/dissolve the Town Administrator’s position.”  By vote at the deliberative meeting, the wording was changed to “To see if the Town will vote to continue to support the Town Administrator.”

Again, Cabral approached the microphone and said, “This will save the taxpayers a yearly salary close to $100,000,” stated Cabral, and $30,000-plus in benefits.  The board of selectmen will then be responsible for their own administrative duties once again and will be asked to go back to every Monday night board of selectmen meetings.  Since the board of selectmen handed some of their responsibilities over to the town administrator there have been several issues.

He continues, “This position is costly for our town, the BOS should be able to find a way to lower the cost of handling the clerical duties.  For years our BOS was responsible for doing what the town administrator is now doing.

“Remember, this town administrator position was passed with very narrow margins 830-808. We weren’t sure then, and now seeing the disruption this position has caused over the last three years, it is clear to me and it should be clear to the people that were uncertain, this is not a position we need in our town.  This arrangement where the town administrator is working for/with the BOS needs to be dissolved.  It is felt this position has not benefited our town and in many ways has hurt us. Please, if you don’t agree, just ask around.”

In response from about two dozen voters, as well as from the Board of Selectmen Vice Chairman John Brunelle, the universal voice of reason stated that Litchfield had a $6.7 million budget, and the town needed a professional and experienced administrator driving the town’s business.  Selectman John Brunelle said, “We do not know the intricacies of the law.  Removing the administrator will not reduce the burden. As selectmen, we depend on the administrator for his guidance and knowledge.  He is the professional.  The administrator helps us carry out the vision policies of the town.”

As the articles and the petition articles go to the voters this coming spring, the resounding theme, or take-away from the deliberative meeting was, “Do we want to go backwards with our community to the 1980s, to the old way of doing things, or do we want to keep moving forward with the current professionalism?”