Town Council Hashes Out Goals for Derry’s Future

An often contentious Town Council walked into the second-floor conference room of the Derry Municipal Center carrying white flags this past Monday, as they grappled with setting goals for the next few years. The session, moderated by Carl Webber and Jen Claise of Primex, helped them set tangible goals and ways to reach them.
Though members have been at odds on the ways to reach their goals, the objectives set out by the seven Councilors Monday night weren’t substantially different: lower taxes, work more successfully with the Derry School Board, and do something about downtown.

Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores set the tone in the “ground rules” portion of the meeting when she said, “Let’s be friends. No fights, no name-calling.”
Chairman Michael Fairbanks agreed, saying, “I think every opinion thrown out tonight will be a valid one.”
The Council wrote down some initial goals. With Webber’s help they winnowed them and winnowed them again, ending up with three main focuses: improving efficiency in town government, working with the School Board to keep taxes down (including a possible change in government), and creating a business-friendly environment for not just downtown, but the entire town.
Improving efficiency
Councilor Mark Osborne suggested the Council look at eliminating duplication of services, and Councilor Al Dimmock said, “We should meet with the department heads and find out what’s going on, what can they cut.”
Councilor Neil Wetherbee reminded them, “By charter, we can’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of the town.”
When Councilor Tom Cardon said, “We need to get the department heads to think about what they can cut in this budget cycle,” Wetherbee said, “The department heads will tell you they already have.”
Fairbanks suggested asking the department heads, “What if you had to reduce your budget by 5 percent?”
But Councilor Brad Benson said the cutting approach was a “cart before the horse” situation, and suggested instead that the Council seek input on what level of services residents are comfortable with.
The search for a new Town Administrator ran like a thread through the meeting, with Osborne suggesting, “Efficiency should be one of his or her persistent themes.”
Osborne said he would like more data, particularly in the area of overtime.
The Council agreed to start talking with department heads in January, collecting “data points,” and to have an idea of what could be trimmed by the draft budget’s arrival April 1.
Improving communication with the School District and exploring an alternative form of government.
Several Council members wondered if changing the form of government would help keep the taxes down. The town operates under a Council and Charter form of government, a hybrid between a “town” and a “city,” while the School District operates independently under the Official Ballot Law. The Councilors speculated that adopting a city form of government, which would allow them to take responsibility for the school budget, would keep all the budgets in line.
It isn’t necessarily so, Wetherbee pointed out. The New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) came in a few years ago, he said, and did a report on changing government. “It gets complicated,” Wetherbee warned. “We could become a city and still not have all budgets under one roof.”
One of the Council’s goals was to meet with the School Board to discuss common objectives and possible efficiencies. Councilors referenced a successful meeting a year and a half ago, but added that there was no follow-up.
Benson warned that trust had to be established between both entities and also with Pinkerton Academy, the semi-private school of record for Derry high school. “The issue is developing trust,” Benson said. “If they don’t trust us….”
“It’s all done,” Katsakiores finished for him.
Benson said, “Why should they come to a meeting just to be yelled at? They don’t answer to us. What we need to do is talk about what’s a reasonable budget, what’s not a reasonable budget. We could combine dispatch, we could close a fire station, but we’d hear a lot of arguments. And on their side, they have Special Education. There’s a lot to it.”
It can’t be a “one-off,” Webber warned, but must be a consistent effort at relationship.
The Council agreed that by the end of December, they would have reviewed the NHMA report and the two most recent Charter Commission reports; and that they would establish regular meetings with the School District and Pinkerton.
Providing a supportive environment for business, especially downtown.
Osborne asked, “What do we do to support small businesses that want to go downtown now?”
Benson, whose family owns two retail businesses on Broadway, responded, “We do nothing.”
If someone wants to bring a business to town, they meet with Town Planner George Sioras, Benson said. He will advise them on town ordinances and zoning districts, Benson said, adding, “But he is the town planner, not an economic development director.” 
“We do not have an organized process to attract business to Derry,” Benson said. “We don’t have a plan – and it takes money.”?
Wetherbee said, “We need a person” dedicated to promoting Derry to business and industry.
Benson advocated for a meeting of shareholders, including businesspeople, the Chamber of Commerce, the Council and other interested parties, to have a conversation and map out common goals.
There have been reports and studies, Councilors said, pointing to the most recent, “Moving Derry Forward” in 2010.
“Why should we have the stakeholders come in again, and tell us what they’ve already told us?” Wetherbee asked.
Councilors agreed to review “Moving Derry Forward” by the end of December; have a shareholders’ meeting in March, before the town budget season; and investigate the feasibility of having a dedicated Economic Development professional by budget season in May.
Public Input
The question of public input was the most controversial portion of the meeting, with Osborne saying the town is divided on economic development. “I don’t see anything going forward until people trust us,” he said, and pressed for a pubic forum on the topic. 
Benson said, “These are the Council’s goals, not the public’s goals. They put us here to make good decisions to move Derry forward.”
“We do a public forum at every meeting,” Wetherbee added. “I don’t think we need to set up a special time.”
Fairbanks suggested letting their constituents know when economic development will be discussed, so they can speak in the public comment portion.
The group agreed to have these goals as agenda items at every meeting; to have quarterly reassessments; and to have an annual review of the document.
“My strongest recommendation to governing bodies,” Webber said, “is to build this into your calendar.”

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