Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Court action becomes less likely in Winchester budget disagreement

By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff

WINCHESTER — Legal wrangling feared by selectmen because the budget committee didn’t take a side on the water and sewer budgets may not happen, according to a state official.
Under state law, the budget committee is required to present a proposed operating budget to voters. Usually, such a budget would include water and sewer department expenses, if the town has them. In Winchester, the water and sewer budgets are separated from the operating budget, and set by the selectmen. But they still need budget committee support.
Since it appears the committee technically didn’t set budgets for the water and sewer departments this year, state law would allow the selectmen’s budget to move forward, said Stephan W. Hamilton, director of the municipal and property division of the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration.
That wasn’t true three years ago, when the budget committee recommended against the water and sewer department budgets, and state officials translated that to mean it funded both items at $0. And that sent the matter to the courts.
The only glitch this time is that, according to state law, there must be a notarized statement included with the budget saying in the absence of the budget committee’s recommendation, the number comes from selectmen, Hamilton said.
Hamilton doesn’t believe such a letter was included with the Winchester water and sewer budgets, and at some point, state and town officials may have to meet about it.
At next month’s town meeting, voters will consider three budget warrant articles.
The first is the proposed $3,410,489 operating budget for 2015-16, which voters amended from the original amount of $3,384,489. The second article is the proposed $337,942 sewer department budget, and the third is the proposed $250,203 water department budget. The water and sewer department budgets are supported by user fees, and not taxes.
While the budget committee made the roughly $3.3 million recommendation for the operating budget, it made no recommendations on the water and sewer portions of the budget.
Budget committee Chairman Brian Moser said Monday the committee voted on the warrant articles for the water and sewer department this year, and it was a tie vote, which meant no recommendation.
The selectmen set the water and sewer budgets, and for the past three or four years, have put them on the warrant as articles separate from the operating budget, he said.
“We’d like to see them back in the actual town budget,” he said.
At the town’s deliberative session on Feb. 7, Selectmen Chairwoman Roberta A. Fraser said the budget committee’s inaction on the water and sewer department budgets would likely result in the town having to settle the matter in court.
Her prediction was based on what happened in 2012, when the budget committee decided not to recommend money for the water and sewer budgets, but changed its mind during the deliberative session.
However, the state department of revenue administration used the budget proposal made before the deliberative session to calculate the town’s spending limit, and that invalidated the money that was added for water and sewer departments — even though voters had approved it.
According to state law, voters can’t increase a budget by more than 10 percent of the budget committee’s recommendation.
Selectmen petitioned Cheshire County Superior Court to be allowed to exceed the spending limit, saying the budget committee failed to provide proper funding for the water and sewer departments.
The court ruled in the selectmen’s favor in June 2012, allowing Winchester’s spending limit to be increased, which added back the money invalidated by the state.

Meghan Foley can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1436, or Follow her on Twitter @MFoleyKS.

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