Town Meeting preview: Enfield citizens group seeks to curb capital spending

Jean Patten, left, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Enfield, N.H., speaks with voter Lee Babcock about the petition her group is circulating to include articles for the Enfield warrant on fiscal constraints. Helping Patten are Steve Patten and Sharon Beaufait on New Hampshire Primary Day, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, in Enfield. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jean Patten, left, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Enfield, N.H., speaks with voter Lee Babcock about the petition her group is circulating to include articles for the Enfield warrant on fiscal constraints. Helping Patten are Steve Patten and Sharon Beaufait on New Hampshire Primary Day, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, in Enfield. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Marley the dog sniffs around a table set up by the Concerned Citizens of Enfield at the polls on Primary Day in Enfield, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Marley's owner Lindsay Smith is the Town Moderator. She was taking a quick break at the polls to give her dog a walk. Members of the group are trying to add articles to the town’s warrant to be discussed at Town Meeting. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Marley the dog sniffs around a table set up by the Concerned Citizens of Enfield at the polls on Primary Day in Enfield, N.H., on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. Marley's owner Lindsay Smith is the Town Moderator. She was taking a quick break at the polls to give her dog a walk. Members of the group are trying to add articles to the town’s warrant to be discussed at Town Meeting. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-07-2024 9:31 PM

ENFIELD — A group of residents has proposed four Town Meeting warrant articles they say will help rein in town spending and put more control in the hands of taxpayers.

Three of the articles give voters more control over the use of capital funds and more opportunities to weigh in on town land purchases. The group’s fourth article asks that the town recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every Town Meeting.

“We’ve been spending like there’s no tomorrow, the town is, and that’s of concern to some of us citizens,” said David Beaufait, one of the roughly half-dozen members of Concerned Citizens of Enfield, the group behind the petitioned articles.

Each one required a minimum of 25 signatures to get on the warrant.

Voters will consider those warrant articles and others beginning at 9 a.m. on March 16 at Enfield Village School. Also under consideration are a short-term rental ordinance and a switch from traditional Town Meeting to SB2-style voting.

If that passes, all future Town Meeting articles would be decided by all-day balloting rather than a floor meeting.

Also on the warrant is the proposed $9.4 million operating budget, which is nearly 13% higher than the previous year’s spending plan, according to Town Manager Ed Morris.

Nearly half of that increase is due to bond payments being due on a new public safety building and renovations to Whitney Hall — which includes the town offices and library — that voters approved at Town Meeting in 2022.

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“We tried to keep everything as level as possible, knowing that those two building projects were coming on,” Morris said. “We didn’t increase services; we didn’t add any new positions.”

The other budget increases stem from two main causes, Morris said: Health care benefit costs for town employees, which have risen 15.6%, and solid waste fees.

Fees for both Casella, which handles the town’s curbside solid waste pickup services, and the Lebanon landfill have increased nearly $100,000. He said town officials would be looking into other options for employees’ health care needs, as well as explore ways to reduce solid waste costs.

“People don’t want to give that up,” Morris said about curbside trash pickup. “That was pretty clear from discussions.”

The articles proposed by Concerned Citizens of Enfield were partly in response to the bond votes. The town spent $500,000 to purchase land on Route 4 to use for the public safety building — which will house the police, fire and EMS departments — using money from the capital reserve fund. The town has not yet broken ground on the public safety building.

Two of the articles proposed by the Concerned Citizens of Enfield members address how the town uses funds in its capital improvement reserve fund and its unassigned fund balance. Article 13 asks the town to get voters’ approval for any purchase over $150,000 made using capital improvement reserve funds, and Article 14 asks that expenses go before voters if the Selectboard wants to use more than $100,000 in the unassigned fund balance.

“It’s in large part due to the shuffling of funds that, instead of returning those funds to the taxpayer, (they were used) for various expenditures that weren’t part of the original budget,” Beaufait said.

Madeleine Johnson, who is a member of the group, said there were also concerns about how the land purchase did not go before voters while other smaller purchases using reserve funds such as police cruisers have had to be voted on at Town Meeting.

Johnson was the lead petitioner on Article 15, which would require the Selectboard to bring any potential land and building sales or purchases proposals “to the planning board and to the conservation commission for review and recommendation by those bodies,” according to the article. She said it had to do with how the Selectboard made the decision to purchase land for the public safety facility.

“The feeling is that for those gigantic things … whether it’s a sale of town land or spending that amount of money, the people should be voting on it,” she said.

She also said the group is concerned the town is not making either/or decisions, like those between renovating buildings and other town expenses.

“Those are all choices we made in our daily lives. You remodel the kitchen and you say, ‘We can’t go on vacation this year,’ ” Johnson said. “A lot of us feel the town says, ‘Oh, whatever, we’ll go to the taxpayers and they’ll give us the money.’ ”

During a recent joint Budget Committee and Selectboard public hearing about the proposed budget and warrant articles, many residents expressed concerns about town spending in line with what Concerned Citizens of Enfield has advocated for. Dimitri Deserranno, who chairs the budget committee, addressed some of those worries.

“We’ve been trimming the budget year after year, and I think we’re at the point where we have to make not little choices but tougher choices on what we’re going to do,” he said during a recording of the Feb. 7 meeting. “I think the town has to have a discussion about the service levels.” He gave the example of trash services, which are contributing to a higher budget increase.

Another budget committee member, Jane Plumley, said that the group went back and forth with town departments about what to trim. The budget committee does look at the tax rate, she said, but also to maintain services.

“I feel like what we presented is a fair budget,” Plumley said. “I’m not saying I love it, because I’m going to get a huge increase as well.”

But while costly, “those big projects” have an upside, she said. “I do like the idea that our fire and our police and our ambulance are going to have a facility they can function better in and maybe attract more volunteers.”

Plumley also responded to residents who wanted town officials to go back and make 5% cuts across the board and that the town needs to consider what services it provides.

“You have to decide what are you willing to give up, at what cost and is it worth it?” she added.

Resident Dan Regan, who is running for a seat on the budget committee, noted that the town has little control over the cost increases this year, including health insurance costs and Casella raising its rates. He added that the town went through the building design process for Whitney Hall and the public safety facility, which residents ultimately approved at Town Meeting.

“We made tough choices. The tough choices put us in this position,” Reagan said. “We didn’t make those choices, we wouldn’t be in this position.”

Another of Concerned Citizens of Enfield’s petitioned warrant articles, Article 16, would require the Pledge of Allegiance to be said at the start of every Town Meeting. Beaufait said that used to be the case but hasn’t in recent years.

A group of residents who live on Johnston Drive petitioned for an article that is separate from those proposed by Concerned Citizens of Enfield. Barbara Jones was one of the petitioners on Article 17, which addresses town-owned land on Johnston Drive. The proposed article asks that “expenditures for legal, consulting or engineering services related to Johnston Drive and/or the Johnston park properties require specific authorization by Town Meeting.”

Jones said the article was partly in response to frustration about the delay in getting a legal opinion on Johnston Drive. In July, a committee recommended that the town sell two parcels and keep two others for recreation purposes. The recommendation was sent to the town’s legal counsel, and the town is still waiting on a response, Morris said.

“What we’re doing is asking that the town not spend any more money researching that, spending in lawyers fees, and the only way they can free up the money for that is to have the money voted on at Town Meeting,” Jones said. “It just feels like we’ve been put on a tenterhook and left there. We haven’t been getting any logical information about it, and we who live there care about it.”

In addition to the proposed warrant articles, Concerned Citizens of Enfield also has three candidates for the town’s budget committee: Beaufait is running against Michele Ilich-Daubas for a one-year term. Brad Rich and Jean Patten are running for uncontested seats.

“The goal is to be at the front table so that we can influence things earlier on in the process,” Beaufait said.

Ballot voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Enfield Community Building.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.