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Residents are voting down spending items across N.H.

Ballot results lean toward frugality

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

ALLENSTOWN, N.H. - At first, when they saw the results of last week's vote, selectmen in this small, blue-collar town near Manchester thought there must be a mistake.

But the final count of ballots did not lie: Voters had rejected every item on the warrant that cost money, including Town Hall renovations, a new firetruck and other public safety equipment, and the town's basic operating budget.

The people of Allenstown were not alone. Across the Granite State last week, in towns that gather for traditional town meetings and those that have moved to ballot votes instead, voters turned down dozens of wide-ranging spending measures, with a forceful frugality fueled by frustration over property taxes that many here say have grown unmanageably high.

Voters in Bedford scorned two proposed road improvement projects, for $8 million and $12 million, while Goffstown residents refused to raise $2 million to buy land for conservation and recreation. In Hudson, townspeople rejected a $1 million addition to their senior center. Kingston voters said no to a $1 million library addition and the proposed town operating budget of $4.5 million. (Rejected budgets automatically revert to last year's spending levels.)

Residents of towns that took a stubborn stance on spending cheered on one another, using online message boards.

"Congratulations to the people of Allenstown," a Stratham resident wrote on a newspaper website. "You're an inspiration, and hopefully trendsetters, for the rest of the state to send the tax-happy bureaucrats packing."

Local officials were less pleased with the results. In Allenstown, the no votes will mean that the dilapidated driveway at Town Hall will not be replaced, the offices inside will not have safety windows installed, and police and firefighters will do without needed computers and digital cameras, said Selectwoman Carol Merrill. The town also rejected a $15 million plan to upgrade its sewer treatment facility.

Merrill said her board labored on the budget for half a year, combing through the fine print with department heads and carefully trimming fat. But when they presented the plan at public meetings before the ballot vote, only a fraction of the town's 5,000 residents showed up.

"Times are hard," Merrill said, "but I really don't think they read through [the articles]. I think they just went 'no, no, no.' "

In Atkinson, a hilly town of about 7,000 people near Haverhill, former selectman Jack Sapia said he was sympathetic to voters feeling economic pressure, but concerned about their rejection of a new radio tower that would have improved spotty radio communications for police and firefighters.

"The voters have always been very fair to public officials, and I've never seen them vote down a public safety issue before, but this was a lot of money," he said. "It's not that I don't appreciate their struggle, [but] God forbid a child or a policeman gets killed."

The current wave of resistance to local spending follows several years of concern about rising taxes, said Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Concord.

In the past three years, Dover and Laconia voters have adopted caps on local spending, and several more communities are considering such measures, he said.

Voters in the town of Sunapee elected last week to impose a spending limit on their local government, though the cap is nonbinding, because only cities are allowed to pass such restrictions under state law.

Jay Flanders, a resident who supported the limit, said the vote sent a message.

"Our selectmen do a pretty good job, but I don't think it hurts to have the townspeople speak up," he said. "In many ways, as communities get larger, individuals feel less control over what's going on and a need to control the size of town government."

Unhappiness with escalating property taxes is also the driving force behind a grass-roots attempt to reform New Hampshire's tax system. The group behind the campaign, the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition, placed a nonbinding resolution on more than 80 town meeting warrants calling for New Hampshire politicians to abandon their traditional pledge against new taxes and engage in an open discussion of options for funding state government.

According to the coalition, total property taxes collected statewide have increased about 8 percent per year, on average, since 2000, to $2.6 billion, and provide 60 percent of state revenue, more than in any other state.

By Friday, 45 towns had approved the fair tax measure, 20 had rejected it, and two had passed it over, with 15 more towns expected to vote this weekend, said Paul Henle, the coalition's director.

The proposal's critics, who say it is a veiled campaign for a state income tax, said some of the towns that approved the resolution first changed the wording to make it a statement of repudiation of an income tax.

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