Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Are Claremont Residents Throwing Their Own Tea Party?

This awesome piece appeared in the Eagle Times on Sunday. It is great to see residents saying enough is enough. In the article one of the council members asked where were these people during the budget process. This was said here as well by Carol Marsh, Croydon school board member during the town hall meeting last year.

The Croydon school board meeting in December was set to discuss the budget. The meeting was changed because of a concert. Although not related to the meeting the power was out for a number of Croydon residents at that time. But the school board did very little to inform the public of the budget hearing or the change in the hearing. When the meeting did happen the person in attendance was not asked to be involved although clearly she has been attending meetings regularly and has expressed concern as to how tax dollars are spent. The town of Croydon has a website as well as Newport Schools, we also have the Eagle Times as a source of news. There is absolutely no reason why the school board members could not keep the citizens of Croydon more informed. I hope that Ms. Marsh does not complain about lack of involvement at the next school board meeting because clearly the school board does not want to share the information. The school board should be more free flowing with information and communicating better to the community. Although we are a small town posting at the school and the country store is not enough, I hope the next elected school board member keeps residents more informed.

Lastly just because people do not attend the school board meeting does not mean they are not concerned as to how our tax dollars are spent.


Petition seeks massive budget cuts
Proposal draws fire from Claremont city officials

By BEN BULKELEY, Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009 7:19 PM

CLAREMONT -- Cynthia Coolidge Howard, along with 300 other Claremont residents, have petitioned city council and the mayor asking for deep cuts in the city budget and more citizen involvement in the process.

At least one city councilor believes that the cuts would devastate the city and wipe out all progress that has been made.

"I've been thinking about it for some while, but what really prompted me was the last city budget," Howard said. "My friends and neighbors are losing their homes. Some of these people have lived here their entire life, but now their taxes are higher than their mortgages. They can't afford both."

The petition calls for city council and the mayor to enact spending cuts of 30 percent and to place a freeze on non-emergency spending such as resolutions or requests of the city administration.

City councilor Jeff Goff questioned the timing of Howard's petition.

"My first reaction was where were these 300 people during the process? We spent considerable time dealing with the ramifications of every decision -- line by line department by department," Goff said. "We addressed these types of concerns throughout the public hearing and budget process. Where were these 300 people? We heard from no one.

"My second concern is I don't think they understand the financial uncertainty that would come from something like this -- where would the 30 percent come from? How many firemen would you have to lay off? How many police officers? How many DPW employees would you have to lay off?" Goff said. "I don't know if some of the people who signed this fully knew what they were doing."

Howard said that she had been collecting signatures for almost a month and that "some people were calling me to sign the petition."

In addition to the cuts Howard said that she would like to see more residents involved in the process.

Howard said that she would like to have a "Citizen Oversight Committee" set up to go through the city's budget.

"I would like the citizen oversight committee to go through and place cuts (on the budget)," Howard said. "And have an actual budget cut session.

"I would like to see the petition placed on the agenda and voted on by the city council," Howard said.

In order to cut the city budget by 30 percent, Howard said that she would like to see the planning and development department eliminated.

"I think that if planning and development were to be eliminated with the city manager picking up the responsibilities it would save Claremont taxpayers about $1 million," she said, adding "I think that the city should also get rid of some of the consultants which could save the taxpayers up to another $1 million."

In addition to cutting the consultants and planning and development Howard said that she would like to see the bonding for current city projects eliminated.

"If there was a citizens' oversight committee it would prompt immediate action and the council wouldn't rubber stamp everything that came in front of them," Howard said. "During the budget process only two councilors asked questions, and only three voted against the budget."

Howard said that one of the main reasons behind the petition is the economy.

"The economy's down, we're in a recession and a lot of other cities are making cuts and laying people off," she said. "This is a bad time to be raising taxes. With the exception of one year when the budget was level-funded, taxes have gone up every year."

Howard said that she doesn't want just the city to cut its budget by 30 percent, but the schools as well.

"We would like to see the same 30 percent (decrease) from the schools as well," Howard said.

In order to cut the schools' budget by 30 percent Howard said that she would like to see consultants and engineers positions eliminated.

"I think that the school shouldn't be subcontracting out some of this work. I would like to see some of the staff pick up (the workload)," Howard said. "There needs to be restructuring -- the insurance, the health insurance, dental. These savings would be passed along to the taxpayers."

In addition to the schools and city Howard said that savings would be needed from the county.

"I don't think we can afford this new jail treatment center. With the deficit we can't build a new jail," Howard said. "These aren't hardened criminals -- I think that some of people could just be sentenced to community service."

Goff wondered how a deep cut to the city's budget would affect the departments and infrastructure.

"How many essential city services would be lost? This would severely impact the city financially and severely impact the infrastructure," said Goff. "It has taken years for Claremont to get back to where we are now. If this (was accepted) then we would right back to where we were. It is absolutely essential that we don't go back to that mindset."

City manager Guy Santagate agreed with Goff saying that a reduction would result in layoffs.

"The lion's share of the layoffs would be focused on the police department, fire department and DPW," said Santagate, adding that the reason those three departments would be hit hard was because they had the largest budgets in the city.

Goff said that he felt that the city council was being singled out.

"The other issue I'm upset with is that the city's portion of property taxes is 40 percent, and yet they've only targeted the city council," said Goff. During the Wednesday meeting Goff asked Howard when she had presented the petition to the school board and the county delegation, and she replied that she had yet to present the boards with the petition.

"It was a deliberate attempt to try and embarrass the city council," Goff said. "It's ludicrous. Everyone should be held accountable, and not just the city.

"I'm sure that there are a number of well-meaning people who signed the petition, but if you look at most of the people who signed it's the same people who are against every bit of progress the city has made," Goff said. "These are the same citizens that are against virtually everything that the city does.

"We have to call their motives in to question. This is purely political and (what they are proposing) would be devastating. It would cripple Claremont and the rest of the state would laugh at us if we were to consider something like this," Goff said.

Goff said that the consequences of cutting back the city budget by 30 percent could be disastrous.

"Every company that has pledged to come to Claremont would bail and every bit of progress we have made would be gone," Goff said. "It's a dangerous game."

Santagate said that he hadn't heard of a petition until Howard was at the meeting.

"I was surprised," Santagate said. "It was the first I had heard of any petition and to the best of my knowledge it was the first any of the councilors had heard of the petition. The council voted on the budget in late November, and it was finalized on Dec. 2 by law.

"There were four public meetings and they were noticed and posted and people were invited," said Santagate. "There were 25 to 30 hours of budget discussion and I think only one or two people came to speak."

In response to the loss of homes, Santagate said "the city has not taken any homes or houses since I've been here. Not one. The banks have taken foreclosures, but the city has not taken a single house."

For the current year, the overall tax rate actually dropped from $32.90 to $32.59 per $1,000 of assessed value. The city's portion of $12.94 did not change, while the local school rate fell 85 cents, and the state school rate fell 4 cents. The county rate rose 51 cents.

"When we submitted the budget in 2008 there was no increase, and then this year there was less than a 3 percent increase (in the tax rate). So over the last two years there has been a one and a half percent increase," said Santagate.

"I've heard from a lot of people that they want a balance between service and budget," said Santagate. "I have to compliment councilor (Paul) LaCasse because even though he still wants tax cuts he recognizes the condition of the roads, and last year he asked for an additional $600,000 for the roads. To his credit he recognized that the infrastructure needed work."

During the meeting Mayor Deb Cutts urged residents to attend a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 29, in the Teal Room at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center, where the tax cap issue will be brought up.

In an e-mail on Saturday Cutts was enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing together the school board, county and city council to discuss the tax cap.

"As I shared with Ms. Howard during the council meeting, the city is hosting a remarkable joint session workshop between the county, the school and the city on Jan. 29," Cutts said in the e-mail. "Several congressional constituents will also be joining us which, in my opinion raises the significance and potential of this meeting to a higher level. The topic of this workshop addresses the ultimate concern in the petition-- taxes. The petition will be a focal point of the Jan. 29 meeting."

During the December city council meeting Santagate pitched the idea of a tax cap.

"I sympathize with the taxpayers -- this is a deep recession. And that's why I'm proposing the tax cap," said Santagate.

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