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Canterbury voters question fire chief’s salary, health insurance contributions

  • Moderator Wayne Mann turns questions over to the selectmen during discussion on one of the final articles of the Canterbury town meeting on Friday night, March 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Moderator Wayne Mann turns questions over to the selectmen during discussion on one of the final articles of the Canterbury town meeting on Friday night, March 15, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Police chief John LaRoche looks over the town report during the Canterbury town meeting on March 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Police chief John LaRoche looks over the town report during the Canterbury town meeting on March 15, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Residents approved the proposed budget at the Canterbury town meeting on March 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Residents approved the proposed budget at the Canterbury town meeting on March 15, 2013.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Moderator Wayne Mann turns questions over to the selectmen during discussion on one of the final articles of the Canterbury town meeting on Friday night, March 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Police chief John LaRoche looks over the town report during the Canterbury town meeting on March 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Residents approved the proposed budget at the Canterbury town meeting on March 15, 2013.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Canterbury voters overwhelmingly passed the town’s $2.5 million budget after discussing an increase to the fire chief’s hours and pay and a reduction in health care benefit contributions for town employees.

The selectmen decided to change fire Chief Peter Angwin’s status from volunteer to part-time, giving him a $30,000 salary instead of the $10,000 to $12,000 in reimbursement compensation he has been receiving. He will not have health insurance. It is a move they have been considering for three years, and this year, most of budget committee members also supported it.

“The decision to include this line item in the budget this time was not taken lightly,” Bob Steenson, chairman of the board of selectmen said.

The chief manages a staff of 25 to 30 volunteers who are responsible for the safety and emergency management of the community. As the town’s population ages, there will be an even greater need for those services, Steenson said. Furthermore, Angwin has done a good job growing and managing the volunteer staff, he said.

“The majority of us concluded that we have reached the point where the demands and responsibilities of the job have grown beyond the volunteer status,” he said.

Voter Joe Halla asked why the position wasn’t advertised.

“Why wasn’t the job posted if this is no longer a volunteer job?” he asked.

Lori Nigl asked whether Angwin is EMT certified, which he is not.

“Don’t you think by posting the job we’d get more bang for our buck by making that a requirement?” she asked.

The selectmen said they were not creating a new position, just changing a current employee’s compensation, Steenson said. The fire department, while volunteer-based, is an official town department and Angwin is already the chief.

In his budget presentation, Steenson also detailed potential changes to health insurance compensation for employees. Health insurance costs have gone up by 46 percent in the last four years, and make up about $155,000 of the total budget, he said. The town will no longer offer health insurance to new part-time hires. (There are not any town openings at this time.) In addition, the town implemented cost-sharing for the first time, with employees covering half of the increase to insurance premiums, Steenson said. All of this could change when the next phase of the Affordable Care Act kicks in, in 2014, he said.

Resident Judy Elliott was against not offering health insurance to new hires.

“I know it’s hard to pay for, but I have a concern with sort of two-tier employment systems, where the new one in can expect a lower level of compensation and benefits than the ones that are already onboard. It just seems unfair to me,” she said. She suggested looking at lowering the employer contribution across the board so the town could afford offering coverage to new employees.

Since there were no direct costs involved in the proposed budget regarding that change, she did not make a motion to amend the budget. At the end of the meeting, however, she made a motion to request the selectmen reconsider offering coverage when crafting next year’s budget. The voters supported that motion.

Steenson said the selectmen were sensitive to Elliott’s concerns and that the outlook could change by next year.

“We hear you loud and clear on that point, Judy, and we’ll certainly entertain that policy as we look at all of our health care options going forward,” he said.

Steenson explained the other budget increases with few questions from voters. The budget is up 1.5 percent from last year, primarily due to the chief’s salary, higher retirement contributions and an increase in the town’s technology budget. The town offices will be putting in a server this year so all of the computers can be connected on the same system.

Voters also approved additional spending in a handful of warrant articles, including $34,600 for a new police cruiser, which will impact the tax rate by 14 cents per $1,000. The article was approved, but resident Steve Henry asked several questions about the police department’s productivity. According to the town report, the department made 510 calls for service in 2012, which is less than two a day. Henry questioned whether officers are using their time effectively, saying he has heard of people seeing the cruisers in Concord.

“I expect more of our police agency, and I’m making that publicly known,” he said.

Another warrant article called for purchasing a new highway truck with $32,591 coming from taxes and the rest from capital reserve funds. That would impact the tax rate by 13 cents per $1,000, Steenson said. Voters also approved spending on a telephone system for the town offices, new folding chairs for the town hall, replacement overhead lighting at the highway garage and police department, and tree maintenance at the cemetery, all of which will have minimal impact on the tax rate, Steenson said.

Steenson also explained a warrant article requesting approval on payment of the Gold Star bond from the unreserved fund balance. The funds from the sale of Gold Star Sod Farm last year went into the unreserved fund balance. For the next several years, the selectmen will seek voter approval to use that money to pay down the bond principal and interest.

At the end of the meeting, resident Arnie Alpert asked whether the selectmen are following initiatives at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, including a possible interest in adding night racing and lobbying efforts for a casino if state legislators vote to approve one.

Steenson assured Alpert that the selectmen always monitor what is happening at the speedway and will work to preserve the character of the town from “undue development.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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