Friday, January 9, 2009

Town Meetings and SB - 2

I received the following from the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers. We need SB-2 in Croydon so we don't have a reoccurrence of last years town meeting.

The full article appears in the Bedford Journal.


January 9, 2009
Bedford Journal

It boils down to this: If you own property in New Hampshire, you can’t afford to ignore Town Meeting season.

The thousands of dollars charged on your tax bill don’t appear out of nowhere. They’re based on decisions made by residents.

In most New Hampshire communities, Town Meeting is where a vast number of decisions, from multimillion-dollar land purchases to several hundred-dollar donations to local charities, are made. And getting involved and influencing town budget decisions isn’t as complicated as it may seem.

“The local voters make the financial decisions that affect them locally,” said Barbara Robinson, the director of the Department of Revenue Administration’s municipal services division. “The voters choose their services and they choose what they want to pay for. That’s their local decision.”

The entire scope of what a town can do in a given year is decided upon at the meeting. Many of the decisions are vital to residents because they affect what services they’ll receive – new buildings, roads repaired, how many police officers are available to respond to an emergency – and how it will affect their pocketbooks.

State law gives Town Meeting – meaning the people who show up at the meeting and vote – control of the town’s purse strings.

Residents are the so-called legislative body. They act as the town’s equivalent of the House of Representatives and Senate. The selectmen basically act like the governor. They make policy decisions and present a recommended budget – although sometimes that’s a budget committee’s role – and the voters make the only vote that counts: yes or no.

For a little more than a decade, there have been two types of meetings: The “traditional” style and the official ballot, or “SB2″ style.

The traditional meeting

The budget is only one portion of the town warrant. The warrant is simply a list of items, called articles, that ask voters whether they’re in favor of certain items, most of which involve spending.

Some of the articles are voted on by secret ballot, like the primary vote, ahead of the meeting. Those include election of town officers, bond issues and zoning changes.

The rest are posed to the people who come to Town Meeting. A town official, usually a selectman or budget committee member, will present the article, and residents have a chance to ask questions or argue for or against the article.

The articles, including the operating budget, can also be changed. An article may ask if voters will approve $50,000 to buy or lease a highway truck. A resident at the meeting can suggest amending the article to ask for $100,000 for two highway trucks or for $0, making it impossible to buy any trucks.

If the suggestion, called a motion, is seconded and a majority of voters agree to change the article, the article is changed.

When discussion is over, a vote, usually a voice vote or raised hands, decides the issue. Sometimes, if the vote is too close to call, a secret ballot ensues.

The pre-meeting

Town Meeting is a voter’s last chance, not the first, to weigh in on the town’s finances.

The budget season usually begins around October of the previous year with the directors of town departments sending proposed budgets to the selectmen outlining what they need and/or want for the following year.

What follows is usually an exhaustive series of meetings and workshops of the selectmen, department heads and town manager or administrator to examine each line of the budget and often reduce those amounts as much as possible.

If the town has a budget committee, the selectmen will then send their version of the budget to the committee, which re-examines it and tries to find more savings.

The budgeting process varies from town to town, but the state has a series of deadlines and guidelines towns must follow so the process is consistent across the state and residents everywhere can learn about their town’s budget well in advance of Town Meeting.

Towns must hold at least one official public hearing on the budget by Feb. 13, 25 days before Town Meeting day, to give residents a chance to examine and discuss the budget, Robinson said.

A town report, which lists a copy of the warrant, a detailed budget and plenty of other town government-oriented reports and information, has to be made available by March 3, according to the Department of Revenue Administration Web site.

Most town meetings are held the second Tuesday in March, which in 2009 is March 10. Some are held in April – locally, Merrimack is the only such case – and those towns follow a different set of deadlines.

Town Meeting 2.0

Some New Hampshire communities, and especially school districts, have eschewed the traditional town meeting format and adopted the official ballot, or SB2, form of Town Meeting.

SB2, which refers to Senate Bill 2, is the 1996 legislation that authorized the newer form of government that allows towns to follow a different way to approve spending.

Fifty-nine towns and 69 school districts adopted SB2 through 2006 (three small towns later shifted back), according to a New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies report.

They include all the larger towns and school districts in the Nashua area; Hollis is the biggest traditional holdout.

Instead of a public hearing on the town’s proposed budget and warrant followed by a meeting at which residents discuss and then vote on warrant articles individually, voters in SB2 towns vote on all warrant articles by secret ballot on Election Day.

Towns hold a deliberative session between Feb. 1 and 8 to present the operating budget and warrant articles, giving residents a chance to question, discuss and amend, according to the site.

On Town Meeting day, voters go to polls, which are open all day, and vote on each warrant article.

SB2 proponents point to the convenience of all-day voting and to turnout levels that are much higher than in towns where voters are forced to attend a long meeting held at a specific time.

But supporters of traditional Town Meeting often point out that all-day voting doesn’t require voters to attend pre-Town Meeting sessions and learn about the articles on which they’re voting.

Also, a New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies points out a “fatal flaw” in the SB2 system: A simple majority of voters at a deliberative session can force a change to any article, even reducing a spending item’s budget to zero, thereby preventing the rest of the town from voicing its opinion on the matter.

Such “zeroing out” of articles is rare, but not unknown.


CNHT stands by their support of SB2 as a superior method of allowing you to make decisions about your town or school spending. School spending is likely what takes up the greater part of your tax bill.

Related Link: How HB0072 might change your ability to vote in private on certain items where a ballot is requested on the spot. In the past, one only needed to gather 5 signatures but HB0072 - Full Text (seeks to change that in some cases to 50. You can write or call your Representatives to express dismay over this bill.

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