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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hollis to take up question of SB2 after resident collects requisite signatures

HOLLIS – Sometime next month, the town’s voters will be asked to decide between fast food and a long, messy, made-from-scratch dinner.

The fast food is SB2, a state law that, if adopted, would replace the annual meeting with a deliberative session and ballot voting.

The home-cooked alternative is the town and school meetings – often rambunctious, passionate and lasting late into the night, with plenty of dirty dishes left soaking in the sink the next day.

From 1996-2006, 59 towns and 69 school districts in New Hampshire were operating as SB2 towns, according to the most recent data available from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

Among those, 11 towns and 13 school districts had made one attempt to rescind SB2.

In Hollis, a petition warrant article to go to SB2 was recently submitted by town native Basil Mason, a retired truck driver who made three unsuccessful bids for the Board of Selectmen in the early ’90s. Mason’s push is fueled by concerns about taxes, particularly for retired people on fixed incomes.

“If I was to die now, my kids couldn’t pay the taxes on my property,” Mason said.

Indeed, over the years, Mason, now 70, has stood up at town and school meetings to advocate for keeping taxes flat or lowering them by doing more with less.

“I’m going to get to the point where I can’t pay my taxes,” Mason said. “What do you do?”

In November, Mason began calling neighbors and collecting signatures. Under state law, after the requisite 25 signatures are collected and turned in, the town and school districts must schedule public hearings within the month before election day. Adoption of SB2 requires approval by 60 percent of the voters.

Hollis voters rejected SB2 in 1999 and 2007.

“The larger towns have been most likely to adopt SB2,” Dennis Delay wrote in a report published by the policy studies center. “The 59 SB2 towns that had adopted SB2 by 2006 had an average of 7,500 people per municipality, while the non-SB2 towns had an average size of about 2,600 people per municipality.”

Hollis has a population of nearly 8,000.

“The simple fact of the matter is you look at the spending data and SB2 towns tend to be larger towns,” Delay said in a telephone interview. “They’re more likely to go to SB2 as the population hits 4,000, 5,000.

“There are always exceptions, but the bigger towns tend to adopt it.”

Many towns have gone to SB2 with the hope of increasing voter participation. Residents pressured by competing demands for their time often say it’s easier to attend a deliberative session or find out about it afterward and vote on spending decisions by ballot on election day. In addition, some say they feel intimidated at the public meeting, where a show of hands decides the vote and lets neighbors, who may disagree, know where they stand.

Research conducted by the public policy studies center, however, reveals that while SB2 tends to increase voter participation, it isn’t by much.

“We’ve had more people voting, but as a percentage of the total town population, it’s not a significant difference,” Delay said.

Indeed, Delay said the more common effect of SB2 is gridlock: “They’re more likely to adopt a default budget, adopt last year’s budget.”

A default budget is adjusted to cover the cost of interest payments and contract obligations, but by freezing taxes, it’s likely to result in the reduction or elimination of some aspects of public services. Road repairs and emergency services, for example, are typically at the top of the list.

Convenience and tax reductions – the two strongest arguments in favor of SB2 – may be an illusion.

“When you take away the rhetoric, it’s a way to avoid all the trouble and inconvenience of going to Town Meeting,” retired Hollis town moderator Dr. James Squires said. “It allows voters to vote ‘no.’ … It is thought and believed that it will control the rise in property taxes, but the problem is how, with the state in its present position, major-league costs won’t be passed to the towns.”

To illustrate, Squires pointed to Weare, a town of roughly 9,000 that has operated under SB2 since 2002 and defaulted on almost every budget since then.

While the town claims a checklist of 5,200 registered voters, between 60 and 80 people attend the deliberative session and voting at the polls is also low.

“The positives are there are more people in the process, more voters than previously attended Town Meeting,” said Selectman Richard Butt, former editor and publisher of the now-defunct Weare Free Press.

The deliberative session “is still reminiscent of the old Town Meeting,” he added.

SB2 has its problems, Butt said. But so far, basic services in Weare haven’t been compromised, although capital improvements have been delayed year after year, he said.

“It does have an impact on the operating budget, but we do end up with a basic level of services,” Butt said.

In Hollis, town and school officials said they were setting dates for public hearings, required under state law, before voters decide on the SB2 question in March.

Selectman Peter Band, who was chairman of the board in 2007 when voters rejected SB2, said he sees advantages and disadvantages to the measure.

But Band was leaning toward the traditional Town Meeting and annual school meeting.

“In some ways, SB2 limits discourse on the issues,” Band said. “The decision is not in real time, linked with the voting.”

Whether the town retains the traditional format or goes to SB2, however, the selectman said what matters most is how many voters participate.

“It’s not the structure as much as the participation of the community,” Band said, adding, “Personally, I’d probably lean toward the traditional meeting that’s served the town well for hundreds of years.”

By contrast, Butt argued that convenience is key. Residents commuting to jobs and juggling work and family obligations don’t want to give up precious free time to spend a day or a long evening at the annual meeting, he said.

And while years of operating under default budgets have taken their toll, it’s the voters who decide when and if roads are repaired or the fire department gets a new truck, he said.

But Squires, the retired Hollis town moderator, warned against looking for a simple cure.

“I think it takes away from the essence of a town, the Town Meeting,” he said. “And it really is a kind of sophisticated sham to make it easier to cut the budget. It’s a shame to take away the opportunity.”

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 24, or hbernstein@cabinet.com.