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Thetford Opts to Tap Surplus Fund

Special Meeting Voters Reject Plan to Raise $17,700 in Taxes

Thetford — The Selectboard will use about $17,700 from the town’s surplus fund to fill a shortfall in the police department budget after dozens of voters nixed a proposal that would have raised the money through additional taxes.

Fewer than 60 voters from the 2,156-person checklist were at Thetford Elementary School for Monday night’s Special Town Meeting, which was called, in part, to determine how to cover police expenses — including pay increases and equipment purchases — resulting from a union contract ratified by the Selectboard in May.

Voters backed the town’s 2013-14 budget at Town Meeting in March, allocating $226,005 to the police department and animal control. Once the Selectboard ratified the police contract two months later, however, the approved spending couldn’t cover the costs.

The motion failed almost unanimously, meaning that by default, the town will pull those funds out of its surplus, Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey said.

While Monday’s meeting wrapped up within roughly an hour, he said the tone of the meeting “could be expressed as one of frustration among the audience and among the board.”

“I don’t think the board effectively communicated that this was simply a formality, and folks turned out thinking that this was their opportunity to vote down the union,” he said. “But in reality ... we couldn’t not sign the contract.”

Resident Ehrhard Frost — who suggested the 6 p.m. meeting time could have contributed to low voter turnout — said frustration at the meeting grew out of confusion among voters about amendments and what he considered to be poor communication between the Selectboard and townspeople.

He voted against the article, he said, because it seemed to make sense to pull it out of the surplus when it would still have a “healthy cushion.” But he also said that the town should reconvene community forums to discuss the police department, suggesting that some residents have frustrations related to the department’s budget increases over the years.

Many in attendance Monday night argued against raising taxes and expressed frustration about the town’s negotiations with the union, Downey said.

Police Chief Jim Lanctot, who is not part of the union, declined to comment on Monday’s meeting. He said he hopes to host a series of informal community forums, perhaps the first within the coming weeks, to address questions “so that we can get back to having a relationship with our community.”

Downey said the town tries to keep a surplus fund of about 8 to 12 percent of its general fund expenses, which are about $1.3 million for this fiscal year.

Town Treasurer Jill Graff said spending for the police department will lower the surplus to $155,770, or 11.8 percent of general fund expenses.

Two full-time officers were unionized after Town Meeting in March, and the May contract was the first for the town.

The department also has two part-time officers.

Although the Selectboard has the authority to appropriate the funds without a vote, Downey said the board has become “conservative” about making decisions without first asking voters in an effort to maintain transparency.

The article initially sought to raise up to $35,000 through property taxes for the expenses, but that total was a conservative placeholder, Downey said yesterday. The board hadn’t yet calculated the spending increases by the time the meeting was warned, he said.

Voters amended the allocation down to raising $17,675, the actual amount needed to cover the new police expenses.

Two other housekeeping articles passed Monday with minor language amendments: one created a highway paving capital fund and transferred into it $100,000 from the highway fund; the other established a recreation infrastructure capital fund and transferred into it the balance of the existing recreation fields capital fund.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.