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Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

An ice sculpture of a man leaning against a lamp post was one of several created by artists at the annual Keene Ice and Snow Festival on Saturday. Visitors at the event in the background are Steve Chickering of Chesterfield and his daughter Brooke, 5.

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Broadband, vehicle purchases among the choices for Rindge voters in March

RINDGE — It was a relatively sleepy Saturday morning at the town’s deliberative session, where voters had no heated debates and made no substantial changes to the warrant that will head to the polls in March.

The town hopes to get permission from residents to replace a bridge, buy new rescue and public works vehicles, and enter a partnership with an Internet provider that would allow better broadband access. Voter-submitted articles include efforts to enact a noise ordinance, double a tax credit for veterans and slow development in town.

Of the town’s 4,597 registered voters, about 50 showed up at Rindge Memorial School (a turnout of 1.09 percent), and while most items drew little more than an introductory explanation, voters amended a few articles for housekeeping purposes.

A dollar amount was corrected in an article seeking to fund the purchase and outfitting of a new backhoe, often used for excavation. The total cost would be $112,840, Board of Selectmen Chairman Bob Hamilton explained: $69,340 from taxes, $20,000 from a revolving fund for the transfer station, and $23,500 from trading in the town’s 2006 backhoe.

Hamilton acknowledged that the figure might seem high, but he told voters that Public Works Director Michael Cloutier uses the machine “more than daily.” The new backhoe’s upgrades and features would allow it to double as a snowplow and “enable Mike to more efficiently, more cost-effectively dig at certain operations, and specifically at the cemeteries,” Hamilton said.

Another amended article would give town meeting voters, rather than selectmen, the authority to accept private roads that are offered to Rindge for public use, which would make the town responsible for maintenance. The wording was changed to clarify the article and include references to the applicable state law.

The proposed operating budget of $4,175,000 is an increase of $121,491, or about 3 percent, over the $4,053,509 figure voters OK’d last year.

Operating budget comparisons do not represent the change in the amount that would need to be raised by taxes, also affected by spending requests in separate warrant articles and year-to-year changes in revenue.

Another significant spending measure would raise $92,976 to make the third of five payments on the town’s fire engine 1. The lease-to-purchase agreement was approved at the 2018 town meeting with a total cost of $467,729 over five years.

And this year’s warrant proposes a similar lease-to-purchase agreement for a new fire rescue truck. The total cost over five years would be $265,000, minus $15,000 from trading in the town’s current 1998 rescue vehicle. If passed at the polls, the article would raise about $55,000 in taxes to cover the first year’s payment.

Two other articles aim to add $50,000 to a capital reserve fund for highway department equipment and $12,000 to the Cemetery Expendable Trust Fund. Both appropriations would come from taxation.

Taking advantage of a state law passed in 2018, the town is presenting an article that would fund the installation of fiber infrastructure, making high-speed Internet accessible to every home and business in Rindge. Consolidated Communications would pay $2,458,700 of the total $5,037,825 project cost. The town would pay for the remainder with a bond, which would be repaid through user fees.

The article would have no tax impact. Voters in Chesterfield passed a similar measure last year.

The proposed $1,250,000 replacement of the Wellington Road Bridge over Converseville Brook wouldn’t affect property taxes, either. The project would be paid for with $1 million in state bridge aid, capital reserve funds and surplus funds.

An article seeking to create a capital reserve fund for repairing and maintaining existing town facilities would, if approved, move $40,000 from the unassigned fund balance to the new account.

Submitted by petition, a proposal to double the $2,000 veterans tax credit for service-connected total disability is the only spending-related article without a unanimous recommendation from the budget advisory committee. Phil Motta, a committee member, explained that members split on the matter — three in favor, two against and one abstaining — because the article doesn’t show the potential tax impact on the town’s other residents.

A pair of voter-submitted warrant articles would reinstate two previously rescinded ordinances. One would limit the number of residential building permits that can be issued annually, and the other would authorize the planning board to assess impact fees for residential development. Neither is recommended by the planning board, according to the warrant.

Resident Evie Goodspeed pushed for the adoption of a noise ordinance she’s proposing, and another petitioned article wants the town to urge legislators to enact carbon-pricing laws to fight climate change.

Voters will elect officers and consider all warrant articles at the polls on March 10 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Rindge Memorial School.

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In Charlestown, much debate but no action on warrant

CHARLESTOWN — A bond for a new fire station; the budget proposal; and a steep price tag for a second fire truck inspired some debate and questions at Charlestown’s annual deliberative session Saturday.

About 50 people attended the three-hour meeting at town hall to discuss the 10 warrant articles up for a vote at March’s town meeting. Despite some proposed amendments, the articles will move to this year’s ballot as written.

One of them asks for $5,800,184, which includes $4,993,266 for the town’s operating budget, $455,686 for the water fund operating budget and $351,232 for the sewer fund.

These amounts do not include additional costs that will be considered as separate requests on the ballot. If the budget is defeated, a default budget of $5,427,818 would go into effect. Both the selectmen and the finance committee recommend this article.

David Richardson, chairman of the finance committee, explained that the bulk of the increase to this year’s budget proposal stems from personnel costs, such as adding a planning and zoning administrator, and replacing some part-time workers with full-time workers in other departments.

Voter William Rescsanski pointed out that the town’s actual expenditures in 2019 were only $5,584,243, or $517,619 less than what the town asked for between its 2019 budget and requests in other warrant articles. Rescsanski then asked selectmen what they would have to do if voters defeat the budget request and the town has to run on the default budget.

“Same as each year,” said Selectman Albert St. Pierre. “We would have to cut somewhere. [The cuts] would be in places that were flexible.”

Rescsanski made a motion to amend the budget article to ask for $5,518,400, or about $300,000 less than what the town is proposing. Selectmen’s Chairman Steve Neill pressed Rescsanski on where in the budget that money should be cut, leading Rescsanski to suggest $150,000 in reductions to the executive line item and another $150,000 across all other general government expenditures. He later said some of it should come out of legal expenses (budgeted at $50,000).

“The [town] managed to survive with less in 2019,” Rescsanski said. “I’m just asking for general cuts for taxpayers who feel like taxes are going up.”

Voter Robert Beaudry argued that the finance committee did its due diligence to keep expenses down. He went on to say that he couldn’t support an amendment that would take about $300,000 out of the budget without suggestions on specific cuts. St. Pierre also pointed out that some of the personnel additions at the executive level, such as the planning and zoning administrator, would ultimately save the town money in the long run.

The amendment was ultimately defeated.

Another article that generated discussion would authorize a $2.9 million bond to build a new fire station and renovate other municipal buildings. This article requires a three-fifths majority to pass.

In 2018, selectmen formed a committee to look at all town-owned buildings to determine maintenance needs and those relative to community growth; to prioritize those needs; and to make a plan for renovations or replacement.

In 2019, voters approved funds that allowed town officials to work with a consultant and an architect to complete the committee’s charge. The committee determined that addressing all of the needs and concerns would cost nearly $4 million. The committee settled on what it considered the most pressing needs, which includes building a new fire station ($2.03 million), addressing structural needs at Town Hall ($100,000), electrical and drainage work and an updated accessible entrance at the municipal/library building ($517,840) and a new roof for the highway garage ($168,000).

Voters generally seemed in favor of the largest expenditure — the firehouse — particularly after town officials explained that the foundation of the current station is deteriorating, the roof leaks, the building has mold, and it lacks adequate storage for fire gear.

But voters asked whether the proposed station would be more than their small town needs.

Ingrid Nichols, the architect who has been working with the committee, said that the firehouse would still be one story and wouldn’t include new sleeping quarters. It would feature an additional bay, and the chief and dispatchers would have separate offices. They currently share an office.

Nichols said the plan presumes the station would be on town-owned land.

Town Clerk/Tax Collector Patricia Chaffee explained that the annual debt service on the bond would raise the tax rate 94 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for the first year and go down every year after that. The bond would be for 20 years, and the first payment, to be made next year, would be $292,000.

Voters also debated an article asking the town to approve a 10-year lease-to-purchase agreement, with an escape clause, for a new pumper/tanker truck at a total cost of $616,764.50. The article also asks to accept a $40,000 donation from the Old No. 4 Fire & Hose Company to be used as a down payment and to raise and appropriate $105,510 as the first year’s installment.

Selectmen recommend the measure, but the finance committee does not.

Deputy Fire Chief Mark LaFlam explained that the current truck, a secondary truck intended to be used primarily for mutual aid calls, is nearly 30 years old, and firefighters often have troubles with it. He went on to say that though it passed a pump test, it took 15 minutes to get the truck into pump gear, which could cost firefighters valuable time at a fire scene. Further, he explained, five people need to be sent out to mutual aid calls, including a pump operator, officer and three others, but the truck carries only four.

Because of this, fire officials usually won’t send that truck out on mutual aid calls and instead will send out their main engine, which also carries the jaws of life equipment that can be used to extricate people in vehicle accidents.

“So if we have a bad accident in town, and we’re out of town on a mutual aid call, we don’t have that equipment available [in town],” LaFlam said.

Fire Chief Charlie Baraly added that the new truck would carry more water than the current truck and includes a roll cage, which helps protect firefighters in an accident.

Richardson explained that the finance committee considers the truck necessary and very much wants the fire department to have it. The problem, he said, is the amount the department is asking for it. He, along with voter Bob Davis — who also spoke on the article — said the committee and others were able to find trucks that would carry the amount of water and personnel needed for mutual aid calls for roughly $200,000 less.

LaFlam said they put out five requests for bids, but received only three back. The quote in the warrant article was not the cheapest, he said. That one was from a company that indicated that if the department went with that truck, repairs would need to be done in Pennsylvania, because no one locally could fix it.

After the meeting, Richardson said the finance committee found a company in Cornish that builds fire trucks. Nearby, comparably sized fire departments have recently purchased very similar trucks to the ones Charlestown is looking for, at significantly lower cost, he said. He declined to say which towns or how much those trucks cost.

Before Saturday’s meeting closed, Richardson said he would like someone to offer an amendment to lower the amount to a number the finance committee could get behind. By that point, though, LaFlam had left, and Baraly could not say whether a cheaper truck would meet the specifications the department included in its proposal. Voters recommended no further discussion or action, and the article was left unchanged.

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Monadnock District
Monadnock voters narrowly approve $750K bump to budget proposal

SWANZEY CENTER — After the Monadnock Regional School District budget committee cut more than $1 million from the school board’s proposed 2020-21 budget last month, voters at Saturday’s deliberative session put some of it back.

As amended, the budget coming before voters in March is $33,727,946. If they reject it, a default budget of $33,251,463 would take effect.

The budget committee’s proposed number was $32,970,000.

At Saturday’s meeting in the auditorium at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center, members of both the budget committee and the school board made their case for their respective proposals.

School board member Brian Bohannon of Swanzey advocated for the board’s original proposal of just over $34 million, which it developed in coordination with district administrators.

“Any reduction, the board feels, in the proposed number from the administration will most certainly result in reduction in certified staff, support staff, extracurricular activities, and very negatively affect the student experience,” he said.

Lisa Mango of Swanzey, a special-education teacher at the middle school and parent of a student in the district, moved to raise the budget about $750,000 to the $33.7 million figure, restoring most but not all of the school board’s funding request.

Budget committee members said they made their cut because previous years have ended with large surpluses when the district wound up spending less than it had budgeted for.

“We have been underspending our planned budgets for some number of years,” said committee member Dan Coffman of Swanzey. “… So we’ve levied ourselves for all these monies, and we haven’t spent them.”

School board member Robert Colbert of Swanzey responded that some costs, including special education, are hard to predict with precision.

“It would be fiscally irresponsible if we didn’t budget — with the three or four or five things that have an incredible variability — if we didn’t budget those in at the highest, and then have savings” if they end up costing less, he said.

In an interview after the meeting, Superintendent Lisa A. Witte said the district has taken steps over the past two years to improve its budgeting process. She said that should result in more accurate projected budgets.

Several voters questioned the need for extra funding, given the past surpluses, and described the burden of rising property taxes.

In general, if a district ends the year with unspent funds, they automatically go back to taxpayers in the form of reducing the next year’s tax rate. The exception is when the school board or town meeting voters have designated some of those funds for a specific purpose, such as setting them aside in a capital reserve fund.

Mango’s amendment raising the budget passed 37-35. The figure that will go before voters would represent an increase of $1,283,853, or 4 percent, above the $32,444,093 budget approved last year.

The Monadnock district covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy. Residents will vote on the budget and other warrant articles at the polls Tuesday, March 10.

According to district clerk Lillian Sutton, 86 of Monadnock’s 9,642 registered voters, or less than 1 percent, turned out.

Considering consolidation

Another article that garnered significant discussion would appropriate $250,000 for engineering and design work related to a plan to consolidate the district’s five elementary schools into three.

The school board voted to move forward with the plan in December, following an assessment of the district’s aging elementary-school facilities.

Under the option selected by the board, a new or expanded “south school” would serve Fitzwilliam and Troy children, replacing Emerson Elementary School and Troy Elementary School. Cutler Elementary School in West Swanzey would also close, and an addition would be build at Mount Caesar in Swanzey Center, which all the town’s grade-schoolers would attend.

Gilsum’s STEAM Academy would stay as is.

Colbert noted that completing the engineering and design would not commit the district to the construction project, but would allow the district to apply for state building aid. If the aid comes through, district officials would put a bond on next year’s warrant, according to Witte.

Much of the discussion centered on an amendment, suggested by Ben Drugg of Troy, to add language describing which schools would be consolidated. The addition was approved after a lengthy back-and-forth on the wording.

Budget committee member Meghan Foley of Swanzey moved unsuccessfully to reduce the appropriation to $1. Citing towns that have withdrawn from the district or threatened to do so in the past, she asked what it would mean for the elementary-school reconfiguration if that happened again.

“The fact that the district hasn’t had somebody threaten withdrawal in recent years is kind of an anomaly,” Foley, a former Sentinel editor and reporter who covered the Monadnock district, said in an interview after the meeting. “If you look back at the history, someone’s either trying to leave or has threatened to leave.”

Surry withdrew in 2008 and Sullivan in 2013. Each departure followed a decision by Monadnock to close the town’s elementary school, according to news reports from the time.

Foley said she does not know of any towns currently talking about leaving. But given the scope of the project and the district’s history, she thinks the district should first slow down and discuss its future.

“I’m kind of the approach that, this is a big decision, let’s at least see if anything comes up,” she said.

The rest of the articles saw no amendments and little discussion, though Wayne S. Lechlider, chairman of the budget committee, and a handful of other people proposed cosmetic amendments to three more spending articles.

Lechlider explained that, because the proposed budget is now much higher, the budget committee may want to rethink its stance on these other spending measures — all of which it supported going into Saturday — and is barred from doing so unless an article is amended.

The amendments were all voted down.

In addition to the operating budget and the elementary-school plan, the articles that will appear on the ballot include:

$1,130,000 to remove a set of “temporary” classrooms built several decades ago on the middle/high school property and build new, more permanent ones to replace them.

$240,000 for maintenance and repair work at the district’s schools.

$46,725 to pay for a Swanzey police officer to be a part-time school resource officer. The district currently employs a school security officer, who would stay on, but that person does not carry a gun or have the power to make arrests.

Establishing an expendable trust fund for purchasing new or replacement vehicles and putting in up to $50,000, provided the district ends the fiscal year with enough surplus funds.

Establishing an expendable trust fund for improvements to school grounds and parking lots and putting in up to $60,000, provided the district ends the fiscal year with enough surplus funds.

Authorizing the school district to retain surplus funds at the end of the fiscal year, up to 2.5 percent of that year’s net assessment. Such funds could be used only for emergencies or to reduce the tax rate the following year.

This article has been updated with an explanation of what happens when a district ends the year with a surplus.

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Winchester voters talk camp and cruisers at Saturday deliberative session

WINCHESTER — Voters at Saturday’s annual deliberative session moved the proposed operating budget and all other warrant articles to March’s ballot in just under three hours, with some amendments and little debate.

This year’s session brought in about 60 of the town’s 2,832 registered voters — roughly the same as in previous years.

Most warrant articles came and went without pause, while discussion on one ended with a resident storming out of Winchester Town Hall.

Leo Freeh, of Back Ashuelot Road, condemned a request to raise $30,000 from taxes to support youth programming activities through ACCESS — an out-of-school program provider for Winchester students from kindergarten through 8th grade.

The program’s services include a four-week summer camp, before- and after-school enrichment activities and free events for Winchester kids and families.

Though voters amended the article from $40,000 to $30,000 — due to an unforeseen grant awarded to the organization — Freeh said he’s frustrated by the impact this would have on his taxes.

“You are asking us to pay for things we all had to pay for. I had to pay for my daughter to go to camp, I had to pay out of my own pocket for daycare,” he said. “... Our school has become a daycare where parents can ditch their children for seven or eight hours a day and then dump them there at the end of the day because they don’t want the responsibility to take care of their children. You made that child. You take care of it.”

Following his comments, Freeh swiftly grabbed his coat and left the town hall before anyone could offer a rebuttal.

As he walked toward the door, he said, “You people are destroying this town. Thanks so much.”

Beth Baldwin, the program’s director, told The Sentinel after Saturday’s session that ACCESS has asked for and received $30,000 from taxpayers for years.

Aside from Freeh, all other Winchester residents who spoke about the article Saturday were in favor of providing funds for ACCESS.

“I want to commend the ACCESS program for keeping our children active, learning and safe. That’s important as a town for our children to be actively learning and engaged in a safe environment for parents who can’t afford child care. I think it’s important that we support that,” said Miriam Johnson, of Forest Lake Road.

Another article that drew scrutiny Saturday asks whether the Winchester Police Department should enter a three-year lease-to-purchase agreement — totaling $37,786 — for a new police cruiser.

The article was amended from $40,461 due to cost changes and seeks to raise $12,595 for the first year.

Some residents argued police could hold off a year or two until there was enough money in a capital reserve fund for police cruisers.

The fund has just over $300 in it currently, according to Selectman Jack Marsh, but another warrant article asks for $13,300 be raised for the fund through taxes.

“We have a few things coming off the books next year ... so I was hoping to pay cash for it to save money in the long run,” said Marsh, who was the only selectman to not recommend the article.

Of the five vehicles the department owns, two are more than 10 years old, according to Winchester Police Chief Mike Tollett.

“I have three I could replace, and I really just want to see, if we can get this approved, which one is in the worst shape when we get the [new] vehicle,” he said, noting that the old one would be sold.

Any of the older cruisers could break down “next week,” Tollett added, and it seems more cost effective to buy a new cruiser than to keep repairing older ones.

The other article voters amended Saturday pertains to the town entering a five-year lease-to-purchase agreement of $121,706 for a new Volvo wheel loader.

Initially written to cost taxpayers $24,342 annually for the five years, the cost was changed to $26,792.

The town wanted to make a $15,000 down payment on the loader with money from the capital reserve fund for highway equipment, but later realized those funds cannot be used as a down payment, only as a final payment.

In turn, the money needed from taxpayers increased.

Marsh said the town’s wheel loader is more than 20 years old and recently had transmission issues.

“After we serviced it, it did seem to solve the issue currently, but that’s not saying tomorrow it won’t break,” he said.

Voters also moved to the warrant the proposed operating budget of $3,675,825, up nearly $200,000 — or 1.1 percent — from the budget voters passed last year.

Residents will vote on the warrant and select officers on March 10 at Winchester Town Hall. The polls are open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.