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Grafton Budget Is Proxy Fight

Town and Mascoma Valley Regional School District ballot voting will be March 12. The polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Grafton Fire/Ambulance Station.

Grafton — At last month’s deliberative session, “Free Staters” and their allies scored a victory by getting preliminary approval for a major cut in town spending. On Town Meeting Day, voters will go to the polls to decide whether the proposed budget reduction of more than $128,000 will stick.

The proposal represents a budget cut of either 10 percent or 13 percent, depending on whether the Free Staters’ or Selectboard’s figures are used. Either way, if voters uphold the cut, “it certainly won’t be trivial and people are definitely going to notice it,” said Selectman David Rienzo. “I think it would be better for the town if people rejected the Free Staters’ budget.”

The Free State Project received national publicity after announcing a decade ago that its followers had selected New Hampshire as future homeland for the smaller-government-is-better-movement. With its libertarian bent, Grafton was among the group’s landing spots.

For the upcoming fiscal year, Grafton’s Selectboard and Budget Committee had recommended a town budget of $954,523, a 1.5 percent increase. The budget was scheduled to be discussed and put up for preliminary approval at the annual deliberative session on Feb. 9. The threat of a winter storm that Saturday, however, forced the meeting to be rescheduled for Feb. 11. In a town with 900 registered voters, the Monday evening session attracted roughly 70 residents.

The Free Staters and their allies asked that the proposed budget be reduced by 23 percent , but the amendment failed by one vote, 33-32. Jeremy Olson, who is running against Rienzo for a Selectboard seat, then proposed the budget be dropped to $825,956. The amendment passed by one vote, 33-32.

Shortly thereafter, an amendment to restore the proposed budget to its original amount lost by a count of 34-32.

After the deliberative session, Free Stater Tim Condon posted an online blog entry that praised the “magnificent small-government activists of Grafton.”

“The power of native New Hampshire activists joining with Freestate immigrants was demonstrated (at the deliberative session) in the Free Town of Grafton, where efforts to increase local spending and taxing were decisively defeated and reversed,” Condon wrote.

Rienzo, a lawyer who has lived in Grafton since 1981, and other supporters of the original budget now find themselves in the position of having to vote against the town budget in order to avoid the steep cut. If the budget fails on Town Meeting Day, the default budget would be $940,366, the same as the current year’s spending plan.

The Selectboard and Budget Committee had agreed on a spending plan that allocated $319,000 for the highway department and an additional $2,500 for street lights.

“We don’t have a lot of room to play with,” said Rienzo, referring to the highway department budget. “We’ve been getting complaints that we don’t grade the roads frequently enough, and they’re probably right. But we would need to spend more money, not less.”

Police Chief Russell Poitras said in an interview that if the reduced budget passes, there’s a good chance he will become a one-man department again. Poitras, who became chief three years ago, successfully lobbied for the town to spend $6,000 for a part-time officer in 2012.

“We were able to do a lot more theft prevention patrols last year, and I think it really made a difference,” he said. “Any progress we’ve made in the last year would be wiped out.”

Grafton residents also will vote on a proposed spending cap that would keep the amount of money to be raised by local property taxes from increasing by more than 2 percent from year tot year. To to be adopted, the cap must be approved by 60 percent of the voters .

Along with making decisions on town spending, voters have a half dozen or so races to settle, including a three-person contest for a Selectboard seat. Rienzo, who is seeking a second term, is going up against Olson and Sean Frost.

Frost, 38, is a building contractor who grew up in Grafton. A former member of the Budget Committee, Frost said he is running partly because he thinks current Selectboard members and town employees are “not working as well together as they should be.”

He also wants to make sure that residents’ voices are heard in talks with the state over a potential wind farm project. Frost, who lives in the vicinity of the Wild Meadows Wind Project, said that it’s too important of a decision to be left entirely to the state.

At the deliberative session, Frost supported the budget put forward by the Selectboard and Budget Committee. Frost said he is “not aligned” with the Free Staters in town and understands why more people didn’t show up for deliberative session.

“A lot of people don’t want to be there because it can be a hostile environment, and that’s one of the things that the town has to work on,” he said.

Olson, an information-technology professional, serves on the board of the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance. He has lived in Grafton since 2008 and has staged two unsuccessful bids for state representative. He could not be reached for comment.

So why are there so many contested races this year in Grafton?

“Part of this is folks who have recently moved into town are trying to get into positions of authority,” Rienzo said. “They have every right to run, and we have every right to vote against them.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jim.kenyon@valley.net.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Tuesday, March 5 edition of the Valley News.

The proposed Grafton town budget includes $319,000 for the highway department and an additional $2,500 for street lights. A story in Saturday's Valley News gave an incorrect figure for the town's proposed spending on highway and streets.

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