SANDOWN – Voters took about five hours out of their Saturday last week to review, discuss and become informed on 20 warrant articles facing them this year. Starting promptly at 8 a.m. and running until just before 1 p.m., the Deliberative Session ran relatively smoothly, and while residents made their positions known on articles, there were no heated arguments over the issues.
A total of 116 voters came out, according to the supervisors of the checklist. Sandown has 3,643 registered voters, so just slightly over 3 percent attended.
The key moment that will determine the length of the meeting is often at the start, when attendees can decide whether to approve the budget in its entirety or go line by line, the latter usually taking up much time. This year, though library trustee Tina Owens moved to go line by line, it was only one library budget line item that was reviewed in this manner.
Despite arguments from Owens and other library trustees, they were not successful in restoring $7,008 to their budget, removed earlier in the season by the budget committee despite its 12-year longevity in the bottom line.
The sum came from a medical reimbursement line at $581 a month that the trustees had instituted in 2001 to keep from losing a part-time assistant director. Owens spoke about the many responsibilities the position carries, including running the library for several months last year when a director was sought, and the only benefit to the part-time role was vacation time.
Owens added that the trustees refrained from seeking a full-time assistant director in light of the tax burden, and said the medical reimbursement was a fair trade.
Others, including Brenda Copp and budget committee member Steve Brown, spoke about how it was unfair that only one part-time employee in town received such a benefit, and that leaving the line set a precedent for others to ask for the same.
As determined by state law, the trustees are an independent elected board, and the selectmen and budget committee can only amend the bottom line of their budget, not individual lines. Copp argued that the trustees could move money around to keep the line if they wished.
Trustee Diana True explained the law and noted that library employees were not town employees and the trustees were allowed to make rules as they saw fit for operations.
Ultimately the motion to add the money back in was defeated 57-25.
Other articles facing discussion included a petition to take money away from the conservation commission (see related story page 3), the creation of a capital reserve fund for bridge repair, whether to pay for mosquito control and surveillance, whether the elderly exemption amounts ought to be increased and whether to pay for improvements to the Train Depot Museum.
Police chief Joe Gordon also spoke at length about the choice that voters have this year to purchase the existing building at 460 Main St., to convert it into a new police station, or to build a new police station. The general opinion was that it made sense to purchase and repurpose the existing building.
After some expert testimony from Matt Low of Hoyle, Tanner and Associates, who has been working with the town on its bridge problems, voters decided to move forward with only a portion of the plan initially presented with warrant article 16. Going into Saturday the article sought $150,000 to repair the Fremont Road bridge this year and begin saving for the eventual replacement of the Phillips Road Bridge.
But after Scott Bassett questioned the need to keep the Phillips Road Bridge functional, voters approved his idea to cut the total. On a motion by selectman Hans Nicolaisen, the fund was cut to $100,000, enough for the work on Fremont Road this year and to save a small amount to keep the reserve fund open.
Low noted that early estimates for the replacement of the Phillips Road bridge were in the $750,000 range, and Bassett questioned the need to spend that kind of money, considering the bridge didn’t serve that many people and there was an easy detour to be made around it.
Once again there was debate over whether the town should be responsible for keeping people safer from mosquitoes with a mosquito surveillance and control program and whether it was safe to be spraying at all. Owens questioned the risk of spraying toxic chemicals when compared to how safe the effort was making townspeople. Ultimately the article went unchanged to the ballot, many saying that even if the spraying and larvaciding only made people a little safer, it was worth the $25,500.
Though historical society president Bruce Robinson argued that he was against the $12,500 needed to improve the exterior of the Train Depot Museum, as he would rather see a larger scope of work undertaken with grant money, his effort to amend the article was shot down by town counsel Diane Gorrow, who said his amendment would invalidate the article.
In related news, selectmen office assistant Paula Gulla secured a 50/50 matching grant from the Festival of Trees for the work and thus voters changed the article to indicate that the sum would be received.
It was noted that Robinson’s efforts to change the article also would have made the town unable to take advantage of the recent grant.
Cutting potential discussion down significantly was quick thinking by chair of the selectmen Tom Tombarello, who presented the article on whether to amend the town’s house numbering ordinance. The article has gone through a number of permutations in the last couple of years and been the source of long discussions at town meeting.
“Last year we spent two hours on it, so no one get up,” joked Tombarello to laughs. “We’ll roll the dice in March.”
The meeting closed with a debate over whether it made sense to increase the elderly exemption amounts. Those favoring the article spoke about the struggles of elderly people on fixed incomes. Those against the measure said Sandown already had the highest exemption amounts around and those exemptions have to be picked up by other taxpayers, many of whom were also struggling.
The secret ballot vote on the warrant is set for Tuesday, March 11, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.