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Grafton Residents to Cap Town Property Tax Revenue at Current Level

Grafton — A petition article on the March town meeting warrant essentially would cap town property tax revenue at its current level.

The tax cap article, which would forbid the town from increasing total property tax collections by more than $1 from one year to the next, will be the subject of a public hearing Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the town offices.

The article, if approved, would require the Budget Committee to recommend a budget without tax increases in perpetuity, or until voters overturn it.

“I think a tax cap would be good all across the board, for all forms of government,” said Brian Fellers, chairman of the town Planning Board and one of the signers of the petition. “I think there are ways to save money.”

Selectboard Chairman Stephen Darrow and Selectman Dave Rienzo defended the board’s handling of town finances.

“We spend the money we have frugally, and we stay within the budget each year,” Darrow said this week. “The budget increases have not been great.”

Both board members said the town portion of the tax rate has been relatively stable.

Darrow and Rienzo pointed to last year, when the town portion of the property tax rate increased five cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That translated into an annual tax bill increase of about $10 for a property assessed at $200,000.

“The last few years we have kept the local (town) expenditures down while the school portion has gone up,’ Rienzo said. “I think it is hard to make the argument that town spending is out of control.”

Jeremy Olson, who led the petition drive, acknowledged that while spending increases have been gradual, they have also been consistent.

“I wouldn’t say spending is out of control, but it is slowly rising each year and this would clamp down on that,” Olson said. “I do think they spend too much because we have seen it (the budget) go up steadily in the past few years.”

Olson, who made an unsuccessful bid as a Democrat for state representative in 2012 and is the former research director of the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, and Fellers also agreed that the school portion of the property tax hits the hardest. Grafton is part of the Mascoma Valley Regional School District.

“The school does the most damage to the town,” Fellers said, adding that a cap on town spending would have a marginal effect on property tax bills.

Olson would have preferred to put a tax cap article on the school district warrant, but he said he did not have enough time to collect the required 100 signatures.

The town tax cap article needed 25 signatures to make it on the warrant, and it requires a 60 percent majority to pass in March.

While a tax cap may sound enticing, it loses its allure when confronted with the realities of running a town, Rienzo said.

“I understand the appeal of a tax cap. It sounds good until you need a new fire truck, or police cruiser. The simple fact is it cost money to run a town and we try hard to keep spending under control.”

Olson doesn’t think a cap would hurt services.

“For a town of just, 1,340, we have the services we need,” he said.

Last year’s budget of $917,000 represented a 1 percent increase and the town property tax rate stands at $4.57 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

The proposed budget that will be voted on in March is $954,500.

“It is hard to look down the road and see what expenses will occur, like when the next hurricane will be,” Rienzo said, making reference to 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped pay for repairs from flooding, the town incurred costs replacing three bridges, Rienzo said.

“Those things are hard to plan for,” he said.

Rienzo is not sure what voters may do with the article but he has not heard many complaints about town spending.

“I’ve not heard a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction from the public,” Rienzo said, “so I’m not sure if it will find a wide audience.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com