SANDOWN – A petition article to take funding away from the conservation commission has gone to the warrant with a key wording change following Saturday’s deliberative session.
As petitioned, the article stated that by taking funds away from the commission, the taxpayers would see lower taxes. But noting the uncertainty or incorrect nature of that claim, residents successfully moved to strike that language.
The petition does not require the selectmen to use the money to reduce taxes.
The new petition reads “Shall we rescind the action taken under RSA 79-A:25 II pursuant to RSA 79-A:25 IV, causing 75 percent of the Revenue from Land Use Change Tax collected pursuant to RSA 79-A to be added to the general fund and not to be deposited into the Town of Sandown Conservation Fund as previously authorized.”
Since 2005, 100 percent of Land Use Change Tax (LUCT) has gone into the conservation fund. In 2002 it was raised to 25 percent and in 2004 to 50 percent.
Those in favor of the article say that the money from LUCT, also known as the current use tax, should be put into the general fund to offset taxes. Few spoke for the article at deliberative session, while those against the move laid out their arguments that the article would not only have the opposite effect intended, but would limit the conservation commission’s ability to make Sandown a nice place to live by preserving open space for everyone.
Paul Godin questioned why taxpayers were being forced to pay off the bond that purchased the Minton Property, added to the town forest in 2008, rather than using money in the conservation fund for that purpose. Others around town have noted discontent with this, citing the bond and interest payments they pay every year.
Matt Russell answered that it was because the town voted to bond the Minton Property. A two-thirds majority of voters approved purchasing the land in 2008 with a $1 million bond. The commission used all of the $670,000 it had in the conservation fund at the time to offset the total cost of $1.6 million.
Lisa Butler argued that had the commission always been getting 100 percent of the LUCT, much less if anything would have had to be raised from taxpayers to fulfill their wish to buy the Minton parcel.
Bruce Cleveland, budget committee chair, initially voted to recommend the petition, but said he had since done some homework and while at first the article seems like a “no brainer,” he decided that was far from the case. “What we choose today will affect our town for years to come,” said Cleveland, noting that in looking closely at the income versus expense ratio of new development, taxpayers come up short.
Cleveland said that only one house in Sandown pays enough taxes to offset the cost of a single student in the school district, the area where most property taxes go. And that is before other town services come in.
Cleveland said there was no guarantee the article would reduce taxes, and noted that while how much of a town should be protected is a matter of opinion, nearby towns had more conservation land and higher property values.
After Cleveland spoke, Russell moved to strike language from the article that he said wrongly indicates that it would reduce the tax burden.
Selectman chair Tom Tombarello noted that he had recommended the article as a selectman to move it to a vote, as many residents had signed the petition. But he said he would make his decision in the voting booth in March.
Selectman Hans Nicolaisen said that while there wasn’t a guarantee that money moved from the commission to the general fund would be used by subsequent boards of selectmen, he had faith in those future boards to use the money to reduce taxes. This year more than $300,000 was taken from the general fund to offset the tax rate, he noted.
“A responsible board will make the right decision to help reduce the taxpayers’ burden,” said Nicolaisen. “That’s why we want those words in there.”
Russell said that with the townspeople’s sour feelings about paying increased taxes, he surmised he could get nearly any article passed if he simply put in the words, “will reduce taxes.”
“The problem with what you’re suggesting is that it’s short sighted,” Russell said. “It might very insignificantly affect taxes for one year, whereas Mr. Cleveland pointed out the purchase of property in town for open space not only increases the aesthetic value of the town but over the long term, actually one could say indefinitely, it would keep taxes down, or at least contribute to keeping taxes down. We’re a society which thinks in too many instances in the short term, when we really should be thinking about the long term.”
Russell’s motion passed 64-40 and the amended article was moved to the ballot in March.
Official lead petitioner Brian Shawley did not speak for the article at deliberative. Shawley was not aware that he was listed as the lead petitioner of the article until a Tri-Town Times article was published last week. Shawley is the son-in-law of Bob Villella, who does not live in Sandown. Villella has been at odds with the conservation commission for years and currently has several lawsuits pending against the town arguing that he has paid too much in LUCT.