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Dunbarton selectmen disagree on spending ahead of town meeting

The Dunbarton Board of Selectmen is deadlocked over the budget that will go before voters at Town Meeting next week.

The three-person board had to call an emergency meeting Feb. 21 because they could not reach a majority vote to recommend a proposed $2,174,004 budget. The night before, Selectman Travis James voted in favor of the budget, Selectman Ted Vallieres voted against it and Chairman Les Hammond abstained.

With the annual meeting approaching and no consensus, the town’s attorney stepped in. The selectmen eventually voted to put the budget on this year’s warrant – and then to let Dunbarton residents decide on the town’s spending without a unified yay or nay from the board.

“I’m going to stand and remind the voters that this budget is not recommended by the selectmen. . . . And then I’ll tell them what my objections are,” Vallieres said.

Town staff and the select board write the budget in collaboration with each other, Hammond said. He called the final product on the warrant this year “a very good budget.”

“One of the selectmen thought it was too much, we should lower the budget,” Hammond said. “There’s no particular reason that I could discern other than being a fiscal conservative.”

Hammond said he chose to abstain so the board could take more time to find the best option moving forward.

“It had one vote for and one vote against, and I was determined we were going to agree, we were going to compromise,” Hammond said. “I voted to abstain so we had a chance to do that. . . . It’s not a good thing to have the board who put the thing together to be aggravated against themselves.”

The budget doesn’t belong to one selectman or staff member, Hammond said.

“It’s the town budget. . . . It’s for the deliberative body to vote on,” he said.

Town Administrator Line Comeau said the proposed budget is up $102,574, or approximately 5 percent, from last year. The largest increases will go toward solid waste expenses and repairs to town buildings, about $22,000 and $17,000, respectively, she said.

But Vallieres said he does not want taxpayers to foot the bill for some of the budget increases, some of which he has opposed all along. Among problems he sees is an increase in the deputy town clerk’s hours, which he said is an unnecessary cost. He also took issue with about $5,000 earmarked for mileage reimbursements because he said the town hasn’t yet written a policy for how to spend that money.

So the proposed numbers will go to Town Meeting on Tuesday without a stamp of approval from the board, and Vallieres said residents could vote to change any of 19 budget lines.

“This is what true democracy is about,” he said.

Beyond next week, Hammond said the town needs to do a better job planning its long-term spending.

“We need to work on a more comprehensive financial reserve plan,” Hammond said. “I’m running for re-election again; that’s one of my pet projects I want to see happen.”

What to know: Dunbarton Town Meeting

∎ Other warrant articles: Dunbarton’s police and fire departments will ask voters to approve three big-ticket items this year. The most expensive bill for taxpayers would be $75,000 to renovate the Dunbarton fire station at 18 Robert Rogers Rd. The money would pay for upgrades to the department kitchen, bath and meeting areas, as well as three new offices.

“It’s just been so long that we’ve ignored an awful lot of safety factors, such as the wiring,” Hammond said. “They need some more room. They need some more office space. It’s pretty crowded.”

But this might not be the last time voters earmark money for the fire station.

“This would be a minimum expense to allow us to live for a few more years while we sort out what we’ll do for a safety (building),” Hammond said.

In two separate warrant articles, the police department has also asked to change its secretary’s position from part time to full time, and to hire a full-time police officer starting Sept. 1. The costs of those changes would be $17,000 and $24,000, respectively.

∎ Should the proposed budget and all the other warrant articles be approved, Comeau estimated the town’s portion of the property tax rate would jump 79 cents to $4.61 per $1,000 of assessed property value. In 2013, the total property tax rate in Dunbarton was $21.01 per $1,000.

∎ Contested elections: Brian Pike and Les Hammond are running for one three-year term as selectman.

∎ Voting: Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Dunbarton Community Center, Robert Rogers Road.

∎ Town Meeting: Tuesday, 7 p.m., Dunbarton Community Center, Robert Rogers Road.

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