Selectmen, Budget Committee Candidates Face Off Before Election

March 7, 2014

by S. Aaron Shamshoyan
Candidates for the Board of Selectmen all agree the tax rate needs to be kept affordable for residents, but that is where the commonalties end.
During the recent Chamber of Commerce-sponsored candidate forum, the three hopefuls laid out their ideas for the town’s future.

Incumbents Michael Lyons and Stephen Campbell, along with challenger Michael Petrilli, all have different opinions on the proposed high school renovation.

Petrilli, a 39-year Salem resident, felt a regional school could be a solution to the dilapidated building.  He suggested a regional school, covering Pelham and possibly other towns, could lower costs of providing an improved learning environment for high school students.  “We must also look at other options,” he added.

Campbell called the proposed $75 million high school renovation too expensive, fearing it would delay needed town capital projects.  He voted against the proposal as the selectmen’s representative to the budget committee.

Lyons urged support for the renovation.  “The time is now to get that done,” he said, adding it was the most important building in town to renovate.  Lyons also noted the actual renovation cost to residents to be about $64 million due to state grants.

Selectmen voted during budget season not to take a stance on the school renovation project.

Candidates also weighted in their priorities for town infrastructure projects specific to buildings.

Lyons felt the police department needed to be addressed.  “I think the police station is the highest priority,” he said.  “We’ve got to do something very soon.”

Petrilli felt a public safety complex could be a solution to aging police and fire departments.  He suggested the high school facility could be converted to a public safety complex if a new regional school were to be built elsewhere.

Campbell said the operating budget needed to be reviewed before capital projects could move forward.  “I think the real problem is money,” he said, adding efficiencies needed to be found and reviewing personnel costs.

Candidates were asked their opinions on Town Manager Keith Hickey and how well he was doing in the position.

Petrelli felt Hickey lacked in communication with the board.  “Basically, I would assess that it can be much better,” he said.  Petrilli added Hickey should be “more transparent” with the board.

Campbell said he couldn’t specifically discuss a review of Hickey as it would violate privacy laws, but said conflicts have arisen.  “Everybody has disagreements,” he said.  “Sometime he does a good job and sometimes I disagree with him.”

Lyons felt Hickey fit the position well, adding he was glad to see some stability in the office.  “Mr. Hickey walks a delicate line with a split board,” he said.

Giving closing statements, Campbell said he was a fiscal conservative, seeking to keep taxes affordable.  “Salem has always been a blue collar town,” he said.  “I like diversity.”

Lyons, a member of the road stabilization committee, said he hoped to continue improving Salem’s failing road system and that all remaining main roads in town would be paved within three years.  “I don’t want to leave that job undone,” he said.

Petrilli considered Salem to be at a crossroads.  “I need to represent you,” he said.  “Accountability and responsibility is what I run on.”

The three candidates are running for two, three-year positions on the board.

But selectmen’s candidates weren’t the only ones being questioned, with budget committee members being asked to share their plans if elected.

Three candidates are seeking two positions on the board, Incumbents Barry Pietrantonio and Stephen Plante are facing challenger Shannon Bettencourt.  Plante was not in attendance for the forum.

Pietrantonio, a lifelong Salem resident, said he hopes to continue providing services expected by locals, but at a reasonable cost.  “For the past three years I think we’ve been able to provide a reasonable tax rate compared to surrounding towns,” he said.

Bettencourt said she had a young family and was concerned with rising taxes in town.  “I also am concerned with keeping Salem affordable,” she said.

The candidates couldn’t escape giving their opinion on the proposed high school renovation plan.

Bettencourt said she was concerned with the safety of the building: “It has been a long time since anything has been done to this school.”

If the proposal doesn’t pass, Bettencourt said she would hope to review a new proposal while on the board.

Pietrantonio agreed something needed to be done to the building, favoring the current proposal.

He said the plan should be supported because the state will cover 15-percent of the project.  “I think that’s the responsibility of the town,” he said about the renovation.

The candidates were asked whether the town should buy or lease smaller vehicles.

Pietrantonio said police cruisers were recently leased, citing their minimal value at the end of their serviceable life.  “They put a lot of miles on them; they’re not worth much money.”

Bettencourt disagreed, saying she would rather purchase vehicles, which is what she does personally, but said each proposal would be reviewed regardless.

“Whatever makes sense economically,” she said.

Both candidates agreed charitable giving through the tax base should continue.

Pietrantonio said if the warrant articles were being supported over the course of three or four years, they should be added to the operating budget.  “It’s an ethical responsibility in my mind,” he said.

Bettencourt said helping people recover from financial hardship could lead to them contributing to the tax base in the future.

Candidates running for school board, planning board, treasurer, and the zoning board of adjustment were allowed time to share their reasons for their candidacy.  Of those, only the planning board is a contested race.

Panelists were Peter Rayno of Enterprise Bank and Len Lathrop, publisher of the Salem Community Patriot.

The evening was moderated by Joel Olbricht.

Town Moderator Christopher Goodnow, member of the Chamber of Commerce government affairs committee, said Fisk and Soule voters would cast ballots at Rockingham Park this year while the schools undergo renovations.