ACWORTH — Expediency wasn’t on the ballot, but it was a central theme in Tuesday’s hour-long annual town meeting in Acworth, conducted in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
About 50 residents sat scattered in small groups around the intimate Acworth Town Hall — socially distanced and wearing masks. A church next door had been prepped to stream the meeting in case of an overflow crowd, but it wasn’t needed. When Moderator John Luther banged the gavel to open the meeting, he announced they would expedite things by eliminating some traditions, such as the Pledge of Alliance, and starting others, such as opening the doors for better air circulation. Officials said they’d turn the heat up, if requested, but outside temperatures in the 30s made it downright balmy on top of Hill Road for this time of year.
“Obviously, this is unlike any meeting we’ve had in the past, so we beg your indulgences as we go along and figure things out,” Luther said.
He closed the meeting with another apology for the unusual circumstances, including forsaking the usual bake sale that’s almost as time-honored as seconding a motion.
But in the interceding 62 minutes, it was business as usual. Voters approved all 14 articles on unanimous voice votes, asking questions about most of them but not belaboring any of them. The $1,386,579 operating budget, up 4.4 percent from the figure approved last year, passed without a word being spoken.
The longest discussion, 20 minutes, wasn’t even about an article. Resident Gregg Thibodeau, who has worked in the IT field for 25 years and spearheaded the newly formed Acworth Broadband Committee, reported the town is eligible for 95 percent broadband coverage by the N.H. Electric Co-op. This will be the co-op’s first venture into fiber optics, Thibodeau said.
It’s part of a $50 million state initiative funded through last year’s federal CARES Act, and Acworth is in line to be one of the first New Hampshire communities to benefit from it. Thibodeau explained some of its logistics and funding mechanisms, if the town eventually chooses to go in that direction, and residents had plenty of questions and comments.
As for the articles, voters did question a pair of big-ticket items — a new loader and a new backhoe. Road Agent Mark McIntire said the town’s loader broke down for good this winter and buying a new one is unavoidable. Voters wondered about alternative solutions, but Selectman Frank Emig put it bluntly: “The engine just went kaput.”
Voters unanimously passed an article that agrees to a five-year lease/purchase agreement for a new loader, but first amended the figure from $177,340 to $179,840. The first year’s payment of $112,500 will come from the equipment capital reserve fund ($40,000) and the unassigned fund balance ($70,000), with the remaining $2,500 provided by the sale of the old loader. “We did some checking around about what fit, what would work for us, and this is what we came up with,” McIntire said.
Likewise, they agreed to replace the town’s 2003 backhoe in which “everything is worn out,” according to McIntire. He said his research showed it would cost just as much to fix it as buy a new one. Voters approved raising $97,133 for a new backhoe, with help again coming from the equipment capital reserve fund and the unassigned fund balance.
One resident quipped, “We can have some of the finest equipment in the state, but we’ve also got some of the worst roads in the state.”
Several articles dealt with adding money to existing capital reserve funds. They included the bridge repair or replacement fund ($20,000), the highway capital reserve fund ($30,000), the buildings and grounds fund ($5,000), the revaluation fund ($8,000) and the fire truck fund ($10,000). They also established a transfer station compactor capital reserve fund and put $10,000 in it. All were unanimous voice votes, as was a request for $24,250 for the state-mandated 2021 revaluation of the town.
They also thanked selectboard Chairman Rob DeValk, who couldn’t make the meeting and didn’t run for re-election, for his 26 years of service to the town.
In the sole contested race on this year’s ballot, Ray Leonard narrowly defeated Brenda Melius for a three-year term on the selectboard, 78-72.
Elected without contest: Marianne Wierenga Nevelson for a one-year term as tax collector; Melinda Loiselle for a one-year term as treasurer; Lisa DeValk for a one-year term as local auditor; Sandra Binion for a one-year term as trustee of trust funds; Claudia Istel for a three-year term as cemetery trustee; Elizabeth R. Gowen for a six-year term as supervisor of the checklist; Mark R. Girard and Rob Vogel for three-year terms on the planning board; Andrea Alderman and Mary J. Hildreth for three-year terms as library trustees; and Jennifer Bland and Conan Cook for three-year terms on the budget committee.