Tax Cap, Gas Pipeline Concerns Highlight Litchfield Deliberative Meeting

February 6, 2016

 

by Mike Falzone

The Town of Litchfield held its annual Town Deliberative Meeting on Saturday, Jan. 30, at Campbell High School.  Many of the around 50 residents in attendance participate on town committees or are involved in the inner workings of the town government.

The town brought forward 22 warrant articles, with an added petition warrant article and proposed a 2016 budget of $5,395,953, representing a 3 percent increase of $163,475 over 2015.

After a handful of planning board warrant articles, Article 6 proposed the 2016 operating budget.  The presentation showcased the larger account item increases and decreases over 2015.

Selectman Frank Byron motioned to add $30,000 to the budget for the continuation of the town’s wage adjustment schedule.  In 2015, voters approved a warrant article supporting the multi-year adjustments.  The selectman felt the monies should be included in the proposed budget because voters approved the article.  Meanwhile, budget committee members felt if the selectman wanted more than $30,000 to institute and continue the program that the number in the original article should have been the three year number, not just the $30,000 for year one adjustment.  Voters in attendance approved the action 41-10.

Articles 11 and 12 addressed ‘earned time’ and the Town of Litchfield’s liability should town or library employees retire, or leave the town’s employment.  Currently the town’s exposure is $163,000 if all the eligible employees left employment, retired, or chose to sell back earned time.

The handouts showed the budget committee did not recommend the town’s article with a vote of 4-4-0.  That produced a lengthy discussion about whether a tie vote recommends or doesn’t recommend an article.

“It has always been understood the voters understand the first number signifies who voted for an article, and the second number shows who voted against it,” commented Budget Committee Chairwoman Cindy Couture.  “If the question is do you support Article A, and you vote no, then you don’t support it.”

The selectmen made a motion to change the wording listed at the end of the warrant article description that the tie vote by the budget committee neither supports nor doesn’t support the article.

“They’re just trying to get rid of the budget committee,” exclaimed two of the committee members.

“Part of the problem is that the town has created the environment where employees can save up time, and sell it back to the town when they leave employment,” explained budget committee member Ray Peeples.  “I work for a very generous company, and a sick day is for when you’re sick, not something to not use and bank for years for cash.”

Article 15 addressed the Fire Station Exhaust Removal System.

“As a fire truck exits the station, diesel exhaust is expelled with force.  The source capture system (with large hoses hooked to the truck’s exhaust pipes) prevents it from being spread throughout the fire station.  The article asks for $50,000 for the system, which can be packed up and moved if the town ever builds a new fire station.

Article 16 listed the continuation of the town’s road improvement projects, raising $200,000 to be added to Highway Block Grants of $193,000, and $25,000 from the operating budget.  Roads in the reclaim and pave column are Cutler Road, Pinecrest Road and Pilgrim Drive.

Article 20 addresses the Northeast Energy Direct proposed pipeline expansion project, which travels through Litchfield along the PSNH right of way.  Litchfield has joined with other Southern New Hampshire towns to legally fight the pipeline, and its annual contribution to the legal fund is $27,297.

Budget committee member Chris Pascussi called the article raising $15,597 (remaining funds needed for 2016) “a huge waste of money!”

“What happens if a town pulls out, do we all have to pay more, and then where does that money come from?” asked Pascussi, “There are just too many moving parts.”

The final article brought by the selectmen asked the town to implement a 5.5 percent tax cap.

“Shall we adopt the provisions of RSA 32:5-b, and implement a tax cap whereby the budget committee shall not submit a recommended budget that increases the amount to be raised by local taxes, based on the prior fiscal year’s actual amount of local taxes raised, by more than 5.5 percent (3/5 vote required).”

The tax cap can be repealed, or a warrant article overriding the cap can be brought with a 3/5 majority vote.

After 10 slides and a lengthy discussion, the motion was made to change the percent to $175,000, which is “easier to understand.”

Budget committee members felt the article was handicapping their ability to do their job.

“So how does a committee member vote – what if I want to support a fire truck, but know it puts the budget over the cap, and I can’t present a budget that’s $175,000 over the previous year,” asked Couture.

Long-time town volunteer/employee Brent Lemire was the lone non-support vote for the selectmen.

“I just think it takes the power from the budget committee,” lamented Lemire.

He felt that even while he was budget committee chair, and since then, the selectmen and budget committee have had a good working relationship.

“I think we have the most appropriate and proper method for presenting a budget,” added Lemire.

Pascussi added that more scrutiny over the budget was good, and $175,000 wasn’t handicapping anybody.  “It’s a good start; it does make it harder to spend five, or six or $700,000.  But there are plenty of outs.”

“If you look at 10 years ago, Litchfield had about 8,000 residents, and a 3.5 million dollar budget.  Now, ten years later, we have about 8,300 residents, and a 5.5 million dollar budget.  We all know that taxes are going to continue to go up a couple hundred dollars a year, that’s a given, so anything that limits that is helpful,” he explained.

Litchfield holds their School Deliberative Session Saturday, Feb. 6 at 10 a.m. at Campbell High School.