Budget, Articles to Warrant; Firefighter Hiring Debated

The Town Council voted 5-0 to move the proposed $28.3 million operating budget to the Town warrant and voted 4-1 to support Article 3, the Town’s operating budget.

Article 3 would result in a tax rate impact of $4.80 per thousand.

Councilor Joe Green did not find the budget favorable, having proposed the Council remove $106,000 built-in overtime from the Fire Department’s budget, which became part of the default budget when the Council voted to add the amount to last year’s budget. He cast the “no” vote against supporting the article.

Ultimately, the Council did not remove the $106,000 from the proposed FY16 budget. The Council did remove $5,100 from the Information Technology (IT) budget for replacing computers and added $6,500 to the Town Manager’s budget to investigate potential solutions to traffic issues during elections.

“I spoke with several people in the last election who faced traffic outside the high school and decided not to vote because it was too oppressive trying to negotiate that traffic, and they didn’t have the time to wait around,” Chairman Tom Dolan said. “I don’t know if we need an alternative polling location or something else, but I’d like the Town Manager to look into it.”

The Council also discussed removing funding for the finance director’s position, which was vacated when Sue Hickey resigned recently.

Smith recommended the funds remain intact to be available should the Town find someone to fill the position or to be used to address the needs of the department.

“Nothing has changed in terms of the budget with regard to funding the finance director’s position,” said Smith, who can’t yet confirm whether or not a new finance director would be hired with those funds in the coming year.

In regard to adding additional firefighters with Article 14, a citizen’s petition, Green said there’s no question the Town needs more firefighters, but that the issue of overtime needs to be addressed.

“I don’t want the taxpayer to have to pay for something twice, and that’s what I feel like people are doing when we hire additional firefighters without addressing overtime,” he said.

The Council voted 4-0-1 to move Article 14, to hire four additional firefighters, to the Town warrant; and 2-2-1 to show favor for the $400,000 warrant article, which would result in a tax rate impact of $.11.

Councilor Jim Butler abstained from the vote because a member of his family stood to gain financially from the decision to hire additional firefighters; and Green and Tom Freda voted against supporting the warrant article.

Resident Tammy Siekmann said she brought the warrant article forward to empower the fire chief and town manager to make assessments and judgments about maintaining the appropriate levels of staffing needed to keep the Town safe and to ensure staffing levels are high enough to serve the Town’s growing population.

The Council voted 5-0 to withdraw its own warrant article related to hiring additional firefighters, Article 11, which, if passed, would have required the Town to raise $393,000 to hire four additional firefighters, as well as to reduce the Fire Department’s overtime budget by $110,000. The warrant article would have resulted in a tax rate impact of $.08 per thousand.

The citizen’s petition to add the four firefighters does not include a reduction of overtime costs – the warrant article is intended to increase daily staffing levels at the Fire Department from nine to 10 firefighters on duty on a 24-hour basis, or as budgetary needs require.

“We should have added firefighters last year. We have fire trucks sitting overnight because we don’t have three firefighters to send the truck out,” said Chris Melcher, who previously served on the budget committee, noting it takes time to train firefighters and the Town will need to slowly add firefighters each year to bring staffing up to levels that will accommodate the many commercial and residential developments coming into town.

Green said he would like to see a reorganization of staffing schedules to address staffing issues.

Another Article that raised concern from members of the Council was Article 13, to purchase as a conservation easement a 26.3-acre property on Kimball Road owned by Leah Doyle, who said her only goal is to ensure the property is preserved in its current state.

The property would be purchased for $395,000 with Conservation Commission funds, which would have no impact on the tax rate.

With the property to decrease in value to around $118,000 once it’s purchased as a conservation easement, Freda called the proposed agreement “an insult to the taxpayers.”

Freda said he would favor the Town’s purchasing the land outright.

“I have no problem with keeping it open space, but we don’t know what the future needs will be. I don’t want to lock up a future council, I don’t think that’s fair,” he said, noting he thinks the Conservation Commission should show trust in the taxpayers and future councils.

Conservation Commission Vice-Chair Eugene Harrington explained that the reason the land value decreases when purchased as an easement is that it cannot be developed – “you’re essentially buying from the landowner the right to develop the land or sell it to a developer,” he said.

“If you want to keep it in open space, fine, don’t ask me to pay for it,” Freda said, explaining he thinks the land should be purchased outright and leased back to Doyle for a small amount, such as $1 each year.

Doyle said she’s open to alternatives, as her only motive is to ensure she keeps her promise to the previous landowner that the property would remain as it was when she purchased it.

Councilor John Farrell said he supported the Article because Doyle was trying to uphold “a handshake agreement with the previous owner.”

The Council unanimously approved passing onto the warrant and supported with favorable votes the following warrant articles:

Article 1, Election of Officers.

Article 2, Expendable Maintenance Trust Fund for $100,000 to support repairs and maintenance to town facilities. The article has no tax impact.

Article 4, Fund Special Revenue Account for $491,523, which would cover Police Outside Details and would have no tax impact.

Article 5, Fund Sewer Fund for $2.6 million, which would defray the cost of construction, payment of interest on any debt incurred, management, maintenance, operation and repair of constructed sewer systems and would have no impact on the tax rate as they’re funded through user fees.

Article 7, Zoning Ordinance Update for $120,000, which would fund updating and rewriting the Zoning Ordinance in accordance with the recommendations of the Town’s recent Zoning Audit and would have no impact on the tax rate.

Article 9, Appropriate Funds to Capital Reserve Funds to Expand Cemeteries, to Replace Highway Heavy Equipment, Fire Equipment and Highway Trucks for $295,000. The article would have no tax impact and would authorize the Town to use June 30 Fund Balance toward the appropriation.

Article 10, Police Department Personnel Costs for $105,000 to hire one or more additional full- or part-time police officers to fulfill the functions of school resource officer. The article results in a tax rate impact of $.03 per thousand.

Article 12, Discontinue Ambulance Capital Reserve Fund, which was created in 1996. The funds in the account would be transferred to the Town’s General Fund. The article results in no tax rate impact.

Articles 15 through 20 authorize the Town Council to call special meetings on cost items should they fail in the election.

Warrant Articles may be revised by the voters at the Town’s Deliberative Session on Feb. 7 at 9 a.m. in the high school cafeteria.

Smith said “a soft-copy” of the 2016 Warrant with any revisions from the public hearings will be posted prominently on the Town’s website at www.londonderrynh.org in advance of the Deliberative Session.

The Council left the Jan. 19 public hearing open to further consider Article 8, Establishing a New GIS (Geographic Information System) Capital Reserve for $28,000, which would fund developing, maintaining, enhancing, or acquiring data, software and/or hardware resources to be used by or integrated with the Town’s GIS program and would appoint the Council as agents to expend the funds.

It may be necessary to split the article, which would have no tax impact, into two separate votes.

The Council continued their public hearing on the 2016 Warrant to Jan. 22.

Smith said in total, the 2016 Warrant as of Jan. 20 represents a tax rate of $5.17 per thousand.

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