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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Long, short of SB2 discussed

HOLLIS – Some voters want sleep, lower taxes and SB2, an alternative to the traditional town or school meeting.

Others say staying up past midnight one or two nights a year, in the company of their neighbors, is a small sacrifice to make to preserve civil discourse.

On Monday, at a public hearing at Town Hall on a petition warrant article that would change the way the town sets its annual operating budget and decides on warrant articles, residents on both sides of the debate had a chance to voice their thoughts.

Under SB2, the state law, which went down to defeat here in 1999 and 2007, a Deliberative Session and ballot voting would replace the annual Town Meeting, or annual school meeting.

The budget-making process would begin about a month earlier than it does now, requiring ballots, voters’ guides and other paperwork to be printed under earlier deadlines.

The process is dictated, step by step, under state law.

In Hollis, the hearing began with introductions by town moderator Jim Belanger and a brief tutorial on SB2 by town attorney Bill Drescher.

About a dozen residents, including members of the Budget Committee, participated.

“One of the most important things about SB2 is how the operating budget is adopted,” Drescher said, describing how the framers of the bill provided for a default budget, an operating budget that includes the previous year’s budget, plus contractual obligations and adjustments for one-time expenses, interest payments and other nonrecurring bills.

“The guidelines certainly show what should be in the default budget,” Drescher said. “But you can have a default budget that is higher than the operating budget.”

Town moderator Belanger, who is also a state representative, said the Legislature is currently considering roughly six bills that would modify the requirements of the default budget.

South Merrimack Road resident Basil Mason, a retired truck driver, was the first to speak and initiated the drive to get SB2 on the ballot as a petition warrant article.

“In this town, we’re forced to pay a tax for education and a lot of us haven’t had students in the schools for 20 years, or never had a student in the schools,” Mason said. “I’m fine with paying police, firemen, the highway department, but when it comes to school, I’ll pay for the buildings, but I’m very upset about paying for the teachers.”

Mason, who made three unsuccessful bids for the Board of Selectmen in the early ’90s, maintained that the school administrative unit should reduce the number of teachers to reflect declining enrollments. He was also critical of the SAU for failing to provide budget information early in the process.

Bob Lebednick, a former member of the town’s Budget Committee, and John Anderson, founder of a local taxpayers’ group, Informed Citizens United, also supported SB2.

“Give it a chance. If it doesn’t work out, we can go back and deal with it,” Lebednick offered.

“I agree with Bob,” Anderson added. “Try it out.”

Anderson also speculated that SB2 would increase voter participation,

Indeed, many towns have gone to SB2 with the hope of increasing voter participation by eliminating the late night town and school annual meetings, viewed as a burden.

According to the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, SB2 tends to increase voter turnout, but not by much.

Instead, towns are more likely to adopt a default budget – the previous year’s budget adjusted to cover the cost of interest payments and contract obligations.

By freezing taxes, however, the default budget is likely to result in the reduction, or elimination, of some public services, such as road repairs and emergency services.

SB2 does not sit well with any of the members of the town’s Budget Committee.

“The Hollis Budget Committee voted unanimously in opposition to the adoption of SB2,” said Chris Hyde, Budget Committee chairman.

Retired town moderator Dr. James Squires agreed.

In his turn at the microphone, Squires suggested that SB2 eliminates the symptoms while neglecting the cause of systemic problems.

“Say you come to me with abdominal pain and I say, ‘Here’s a painkiller.’ Then you come back with a fever, and I say, ‘Take some aspirin.’ You might get better, but you probably won’t,” Squires said. “We’re not talking about the systems, the reasons taxes are going up; inflation, school special education heavily mandated by the federal government and the state, and worst of all local taxes because of the tax structure of the state. If you don’t smoke, if you don’t drink … you don’t pay any taxes to the (state) government. But if you lose your job, if your income is limited, our tax structure (says) ‘Tough luck.”

Squires also argued that the traditional town meeting, unlike the Deliberative Session under SB2, allows voters to discuss their opinions – and change their minds.

“Town meeting changes things after some people speak,” he said.

The Hollis Brookline Cooperative School District has scheduled public hearings on SB2 next week in Hollis and Brookline. A hearing will take place Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Brookline Town Hall and on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Hollis Brookline Middle School in Hollis.

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