Hartford Selectboard Will Temporarily Close Public Pools

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2018 12:23:50 AM
Modified: 1/10/2018 9:08:30 AM

Hartford — The Selectboard voted unanimously on Tuesday night to send Town Meeting voters a $15.73 million budget that will fully fund the town’s libraries, but temporarily close the public Sherman Manning Pools.

Town officials said they intend to form a committee to determine the long-term prospects of the pools; the main pool has been plagued by leaks for years and is in need of an estimated $320,000 in repairs. The vote came after a handful of residents, including State Rep. Gabrielle Lucke, D-Hartford, came to the scheduled budget meeting to demonstrate support for the pool.

“In the last 48 hours, I have had 11 conversations with constituents in the community concerned about this issue. ... I got more calls about our pool than I got about the marijuana legislation,” Lucke said.

Gail Guernsey, of White River Junction, described herself as a longtime user of the pool, and said it has appeal for many seniors.

“That’s where I spend my summer vacation, is at the pool,” she said. “My grandchildren are too old now. They don’t like to go, but I do. I like to go and listen to the kids.”

Heather Albrecht and her two children also spoke on behalf of the pool, which they said was conveniently located near their White River Junction home.

“It’s definitely been a valuable asset to our family,” Albrecht said. “The way it is, the (Upper Valley) Aquatic Center is just outpriced for our family. I think we represent a mid- to lower end of Hartford.”

The discussion about the pool came early in a two-hour discussion about the budget proposal crafted by Town Manager Leo Pullar.

“I’m proud of this budget,” Pullar said. “I’m ready to talk about this budget all night. ... It takes us a step beyond where we were before. (But) it doesn’t ask us to stretch too far.”

The budget includes $445,000 in spending increases over the current year’s budget, and would bump the tax rate to 99.1 cents from 95.8 cents per $100 of assessed property value, an increase of 3.4 percent.

If the budget is approved by voters in March, the owner of a $250,000 home would see their taxes go up to $2,476.50 from $2,395.

Those numbers are up from last year’s flat-funded budget, but significantly below the 6.1 percent tax hike under December’s earlier working drafts of the budget.

Spending increases were driven by a 9 percent increase in health care costs, a 14 percent increase in workers’ compensation insurance and a 10 percent increase in property and liability insurance.

The town also is losing about $150,000 in labor that previously was provided by work crews from the recently closed Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor.

Earlier versions of the budget had included a 10 percent cut to various town libraries’ funding requests, but Pullar said this version, which was modified after a letter-writing campaign and a public show of support by library users, “fully funds library requests.”

Pullar defended his budget against probing questions from the Selectboard, members of which asked for more information about a decision to switch fire hydrant funding to user fee-supported funds rather than the tax-supported general fund; a decision not to add a requested half-time information technology support person, and a decision not to fund an additional firefighter requested by the fire department, among other items.

Pullar said town officials “really have no option but to close the pool for this summer” while a committee explores alternatives. Former School Board member and child care center owner Jeff Arnold argued on behalf of a municipal bond to fix or replace the pool.

“It will put us back in the same sphere of Lebanon, which has a beautiful pool, and Hanover and Woodstock. ... People are going to other towns to use those pools,” Arnold said.

In a discussion that grew heated, Arnold and Pullar traded barbs over whether a public letter Arnold had written about the pool was accurate, and whether a response from Pullar had insulted Arnold.

Arnold and other pool supporters argued that the pool, which is located near the Hartford High School campus, is an important low-cost alternative to the Aquatic Center, but Selectman Alan Johnson said that as the town struggles to prioritize competing needs, keeping the pool open might not be the best way to serve Hartford’s low-income residents.

“If you think the pool is the most important thing to poor people in this town, you don’t understand what it means to be poor,” Johnson said. “You don’t understand poverty.”

Arnold responded that the Ventures Day Camp, which includes swimming programs for children, “mostly accommodates poorer kids.”

“Kids need more than just food to eat,” Arnold said. “They need a life. They need enjoyment.”

Several residents said the idea of a “spray park,” which town officials have suggested as an alternative, would lack the same broad appeal that the pool does.

The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposal during a budget discussion and candidates night on Feb. 26, and is scheduled to vote on it during Town Meeting on March 6.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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