Town Meeting 2014: Uncontested Races And Big Spending Proposals

Mar 11, 2014

Town Meeting season is upon us, which means voters across New Hampshire will head to the polls today to weigh in on budgets, contracts, town elections and major spending proposals.

NHPR’s Michael Brindley spoke with Christine Fillmore, staff attorney with the New Hampshire Municipal Association, who has been fielding questions and giving guidance to towns as they’ve been preparing for the big day.

And she brought up a number of takeaways as far as any trends go.

Fillmore says some towns really seem to be struggling this year with finding people willing to run for open positions or fill spots on appointed boards, particularly land use boards.  

"There are a lot of uncontested races, from what I can tell. There are places that are reporting problems finding people to be selectmen. It’s a difficult job. And it doesn’t pay much, if at all.”

Now, generally speaking, if there’s an open position after an election, the selectmen will appoint someone to fill that role until the next annual election.

And if we look at this year compared to the last few years, Fillmore says she’s seen an uptick in towns looking for guidance on putting forward capital projects.

For example, Newmarket is looking at a $45 million proposal to build a new combined middle school and high school.

And in Bedford, they’re looking at spending $30 million to cover the cost of a backlog of road improvements.

Fillmore says a lot of these spending proposals are projects towns have been putting off, and many of them will require bonding over several years.

“So we’ve been getting increased questions about how to do that; how to comply technically with the requirements of the municipal budgeting act and the finance act. I think those questions have been coming in because they haven’t been doing it over the last couple years. Since they’re considering spending a little bit more money this year, they’re more concerned about making sure they’ve gotten it right.”

There’s actually a laundry list of technical requirements that come with putting forward a bond.

For example,  you need to have public hearings leading up to the vote and the question to approve the bond actually has to appear in a particular place on the warrant.

And any bond over $100,000 requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

And if those specifics aren’t met, the Department of Revenue Administration won’t approve the bond, so there’s a real incentive for the towns to make sure they’re crossing all their T’s and dotting all their I’s.

Also, this year, there are towns considering tax caps for the first time.

There have been cities that have passed tax caps, but Fillmore says this is now an option for towns this year, under a law passed in 2011.

One of the towns that will actually put the question to voters is Conway.

They don’t vote until April, but voters will decide whether to impose a 2.5 percent tax cap on the school budget.

There’s also a proposal to cap the town budge at ten percent, but Town Manager Earl Sires says that would likely have a minimal impact because the budget rarely increases by that much anyway.

And Fillmore she says there two perennial concerns that are popping up again this year.

One is the Northern Pass – she says there are towns, and not just in the North Country, that continue to be worried about the final route of the project and what is their part to play in that.

“And then there’s continued concern about wind power projects or whether or not towns and cities can do anything to regulate them.”

And as we heard Sam Evans-Brown report last week, there are a handful of towns that will take up questions related to wind farms at Town Meeting.

For example, voters in Alexandria, Ashland, Bristol and Danbury will take up warrant articles that would restrict or regulate wind farms.