Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- It was the end of an era.
Following a positive vote on warrant Article 2 at the March 8 polls, Saturday’s budgetary Town Meeting was Londonderry’s last.
Next year, residents will vote on issues like the town budget and collective bargaining agreements via official ballot, with a February Deliberative Session held prior to the March election day as a replacement to the Saturday Town Meeting.
Attendance at Saturday’s Town Meeting was low this year, with approximately half of the seats in the high school cafeteria unoccupied by 9 a.m. when the meeting began.
At the 2010 meeting there were 318 voters, compared to the 230 voters seated in the audience this year.
Of the nine warrants presented, Article 5, the town’s budget, drew the most comment from attendees, with the future of state-funded retirements for some town employees uncertain.
“I never thought I’d see the day where the tax rate comes before public safety,” said Peter Curro, making a motion to return $460,000 to the General Fund.
Curro noted the governor’s current plan is to no longer fund 35 percent of retirements for police and fire officials. “If this amendment does not pass, $460,000 in programs and services would be reduced to stay in the budget,” he emphasized. The police department is already losing four officers next year, including a school resource officer. Additionally, town officials have voiced fears that they could be left with no choice but to close one of the town’s four fire stations next year, should Gov. Lynch’s budget cuts come to pass.
Town Manager Dave Caron said Article 5, the $25,727,911 proposed operating budget, would cost $1.3 million less than the default budget presented, and a significant decrease over the current budget. “Unfortunately again this year, the economy has impacted the town budget and plans for the future,” Caron said. “Revenues to the town remain stagnant, however.”
Rep. Al Baldasaro (R-Londonderry) reminded fellow voters that, “the governor’s budget is basically talk.” “It’s a guessing game right now. I doubt we can correct it, and is it worth adding to the tax rate? We’re determined to fix this one way or another.”
“We’re kind of in a wait-andsee mode,” councilor Sean O’Keefe emphasized, noting Caron had posed the possibility to hold a special town meeting in the event that state budget cuts are made official. “As one councilor, it would be much more prudent to do that than to add to our budget right now. That would be kind of fiscally irresponsible. As far as closing a fire station, that’s not going to happen.”
“In no way, shape or form did we put public safety behind anything else,” said exiting councilor Mike Brown. “This is not a done deal, this is a policy thing. What we’re voting on today is a responsible budget with public safety in mind,” he added, to a smattering of applause.
Resident Greg Warner said he supported the amendment proposed by Curro. “This would avoid the possibility of voiding our services by police and fire, as well as other town services in an already extremely tight budget,” he said.
Police Chief Bill Hart said the department has already gone from 45 regular officers to 43 for the coming fiscal year, reduced one School Resource Officer and planned to reduce the town’s animal control program in the near future.
“If the governor’s proposal comes to fruition, we will have to reduce our force to 40 officers,” Hart warned, noting the reduction would bring the town’s police force to a manpower level the town hasn’t seen since the mid-90s.
“Our goal is to maintain the best service we can with what we’ve been given,” said fire Chief Kevin MacCaffrie, noting a further reduction in staff could pose potential for closing one station in a worst-case scenario.
“I believe I want to get all the services I can get right now,” resident Reed Clark said. “I’d like to have all the services guaranteed this year.”After an hour-long discussion, residents voted on Curro’s proposed amendment via secret ballot. The numbers were close, though the amendment ultimately failed at 95 for to 105 opposed.
Another secret ballot was used to determine the fate of the budget itself, though it overwhelmingly passed, with 176 voting in favor, and just 30 voting against.
With the proposed $25,727,91 operating budget approved, $14,865,919 in property taxes will be raised next year, resulting in a tax rate impact of $4.74 in Fiscal Year 2012.