Fred Okrent likes the idea of renting town-owned land in Pittsfield to a company that wants to build a “solar garden,” with no up-front costs to taxpayers and the promise of new tax revenue.
“It’s a way to reduce town costs,” Okrent said. “Any decrease in the town budget affects me because I’m retired, I’m on a fixed income. If my taxes go down, that’s a plus. If this makes the taxes go down, I’m all for it. Also, it’s eliminating some pollution, so environmentally and financially, it makes sense.”
The issue was the final one on the town warrant that was debated Saturday morning, as towns and school districts across the state that have moved to a Senate Bill 2 voting system begin their deliberative sessions.
These sessions are for voters to consider changes to cost items facing the town, including the overall budget, or purchasing items like police cruisers or plow trucks. Voting happens next month, on March 10.
Several local towns, including Pittsfield, Allenstown and Epsom, held their deliberative sessions on Saturday, the earliest possible date to do so. Others are holding their sessions in the coming days, including Henniker, Weare and several area school districts.
The start of town meeting season this year creates a unique intersection on the calendar between the most-grassroots of town-level politics just as the eyes of the political world focus on the finale of the New Hampshire primary.
On the local level, some town officials and voters say the level of participation is waning.
Over in Epsom, Deputy Town Moderator Gary Matteson said the deliberative session used to attract 300 to 400 people. This year, a little more than two dozen actual voters showed up alongside the elected officials and department heads.
“There’s a lot less participation in terms of being at the meeting and experiencing the deliberative process, but more people get to have input because they are voting on more things on the ballot,” Matteson said. “If people have questions about what’s going on, they need to be at the deliberative session.”
One of the people who came to the meeting was 86-year-old resident Frank Quimby, who wanted to find out about the issues facing the town.
“I wish they’d get more people out,” Quimby said of the turnout and the divided meetings. “We don’t get the people we should and then when they go vote, they’re not familiar with what they are voting for.”
In Allenstown, SB 2 meetings were a foreign concept to Town Administrator Derik Goodine, who came to town after more than two decades working in Maine.
Goodine says he likes to see the residents, interact with them, and answer their questions.
“I actually like to have the debate about all the articles,” he said. “I think it makes it more difficult to explain things when people are voting in the voting booths, I understand the turnout is better, but I don’t think you get to debate the articles and educate why we propose the budgets we do to voters.”
Overall, he said Saturday’s meeting went well. While the town budget is proposed to go up, added revenue means the tax rate is projected to go down for the second year in a row, which seemed to sit well with residents.
Back in Pittsfield where none of the warrant articles were changed or amended, Okrent is no fan of SB 2 either.
“There’s so much of a time lag between the deliberative session and the actual voting people tend to forget what was said at the deliberative session,” he said. “The old traditional town meeting, you deliberate, you discuss and you vote, there’s no forgetting.”
He likes to see his neighbors face to face and tell them why he opposes or supports certain warrant articles, like the solar array proposed by New England Solar Gardens.
“The only reason to go to SB 2 is some people in town wanted it because of the secret ballot,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned those people don’t have the guts to stand up and be counted in front of their neighbors.”
■Epsom School District, Tuesday, Feb. 4
■Weare School District, Wednesday, Feb. 5
■Shaker Regional School District, Wednesday, Feb. 5
■Pittsfield School District, Wednesday, Feb. 5
■John School District, Friday, Feb. 7
■Town of Weare, Saturday, Feb. 8