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Amid confusion, Dunbarton voters choose to slice budget

  • Paul Lavalley, sitting next to his wife Mary, laughs at one of the moderator's humorous anecdotes during discussion of Article 1 of the warrant during the Dunbarton town meeting at Dunbarton Elementary School on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

    Paul Lavalley, sitting next to his wife Mary, laughs at one of the moderator's humorous anecdotes during discussion of Article 1 of the warrant during the Dunbarton town meeting at Dunbarton Elementary School on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

    (ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

  • Dunbarton residents vote on articles of the warrant during the Dunbarton town meeting at Dunbarton Elementary School on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

    Dunbarton residents vote on articles of the warrant during the Dunbarton town meeting at Dunbarton Elementary School on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

    (ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

  • Paul Lavalley, sitting next to his wife Mary, laughs at one of the moderator's humorous anecdotes during discussion of Article 1 of the warrant during the Dunbarton town meeting at Dunbarton Elementary School on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)
  • Dunbarton residents vote on articles of the warrant during the Dunbarton town meeting at Dunbarton Elementary School on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.<br/><br/>(ARIANA van den AKKER / Monitor staff)

In a town meeting marked by contentiousness and confusion, Dunbarton voters sliced about $103,000 off the proposed operating budget after discovering that a surplus existed from last year and deciding that the money should be bumped to this year.

The final figure was $2.07 million, down from the $2.17 million proposal that had selectmen at odds entering the meeting.

Elsewhere, a fuss was made over granting an extra eight hours of work per week in the town clerk’s office and $5,000 in annual pay; road agent Jeff Crosby took the microphone several times and convinced voters to back articles seeking $100,000 to update highway equipment; and fire Chief Jon Wiggin received support for $75,000 worth of improvements to the 50-year-old fire station and saving $20,000 toward the $400,000 that will be needed for a new engine.

Nine of the warrant’s 20 articles had not been addressed by press time, nor had the votes been counted in the lone contested race, between selectmen Chairman Les Hammond and Brian Pike.

Voters grew impatient with the selectmen after the three elected officials seemed to have trouble answering questions in a timely fashion.

It took more than an hour to agree on the budget after Selectman Ted Vallieres corrected a line – “The selectmen recommend the passage of this article” – below the request for $2.17 million.

Vallieres rose from the table in front of the packed gymnasium and pointed out that he voted against the figure; board member Travis James supported it, and Hammond abstained.

The trio met in an emergency meeting last month to settle the dispute but agreed to leave it to voters at last night’s meeting.

“We needed a mediator, and we agreed to bring this warrant article to the voters,” Vallieres said. “We increased the budget by $103,000, and I have no problem with that, but I have a problem with the way we went about it.”

Vallieres reasoned that because of the $100,000 left over from last year, the 2014 budget should equal that amount plus last year’s actual expenditures of $1.96 million.

Resident Steve Saka took it a step further, asking why it said in print that the selectmen had voted for the budget when in fact each of the three members had cast a different vote.

“Because of a storm, a meeting was canceled,” Vallieres said. “By time we got to vote, the town report was already being printed. We started the budget discussions too late.”

Saka was also troubled by the fact that the town budget had increased by a total of just 1.6 percent from 2009 through 2012, and was 10 percent more this year, despite the $100,000 savings last year.

“I like the amended budget much better,” Saka said, backing Vallieres. “Let’s see how that goes for a year.”

The budget debate continued when Fran Hill approached the microphone and, armed with a wealth of information, wanted to know why eight more hours of paid time per week, at an annual cost of more than $5,000, were needed for town clerk duties.

“Forty-five percent of office hours needs two people?” Hill asked.

Linda Landry, who’s entering her 18th year as town clerk, responded by saying there’s lots of work.

“Fran threw out a whole lot of numbers,” Landry said. “Day-to-day is not a problem because of my experience, but I have to comply with all the laws and know where to go. We have over 250 years of minutes and documents that have to be preserved.”

Later, Ralph Fellbaum grew irritated when selectmen had trouble answering why $20,000 was needed in savings for future maintenance when $19,000 had already been allotted for it as part of the budget.

“Why squirrel this money away?” Fellbaum said after asking the same question at least three times.

Another resident, Marcia Wagner, was upset that some articles sought surplus money while others asked for tax money.

“Residents are more apt to say that if it’s a surplus, the money is already there,” Wagner said. “There’s less chance the money will be raised if it’s by taxation. How do you determine the difference?”

After a long delay, Vallieres said, “The simple answer to your question is, it’s politics.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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