By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — The Conway School Board followed the lead of town selectmen on Monday night when they unanimously voted not to support a petitioned warrant article designed to cap the amount of money the budget committee can recommend to be raised by taxes at no more than a 2.5 percent increase. Some members viewed the warrant article as an insult.
"Personally, I'm offended by this," board member Joe Lentini said during a public hearing specifically to address the article — which no one attended other than a reporter who is a Bartlett resident. "Myself and the rest of us were elected to do a job and now this is telling us what to do."
Colleague Mark Hounsell went even further.
"I don't believe it is intended to be but it is an assault on the next generation to come through these schools," he said. "We should at least have the decency to provide the resources for them to pursue the American dream. We're taking away their American dream.
"I will not hold myself to this language," he said. "I don't care if it's on a gold tablet brought down from Mount Washington, I will not be told what I will or won't do."
The tax cap article, No. 13 on this year's school warrant, requires a 3/5 majority to pass. It reads as follows:
"Shall we adopt the provisions of RSA 32:5-b, and implement a tax cap whereby the Conway School Board/Budget Committee shall not submit a recommended budget that increases the amount to be raised by local taxes, based on the prior fiscal year's actual amount of local taxes raised, by more than 2.5 percent?"
Another petition with similar language is on the town's warrant. Selectmen unanimously rejected the idea last week.
Petitioners, including several budget committee members, hoping to impose discipline on the town and school, are asking voters to support a petition to cap the amount of money the budget committee can recommend to be raised by taxes.
If adopted by voters this April, it would not go until effect next year and would be applied to the 2015-16 school budget.
This year's estimated tax rate, excluding separate special articles, is $12.07 per $1,000 of property valuation, representing an increase of 53 cents per $1,000 of property valuation from the previous year.
Superintendent Carl Nelson projected if all of the warrant articles were to be voter approved, it would represent an overall tax increase of $1.04 per $1,000 of property valuation, raising the tax rate to $12.58 per $1,000 of property valuation or a 8.99 percent increase.
The tax hit for a person owning a $200,000 home would be an increase of $208. Last year was an additional $266 for a $200,000 homeowner with a $1.33 per $1,000 of property valuation over and above the current tax.
Under the proposed 2.5 percent tax cap, Nelson shared with the board the possible impact of such a move.
"This has not yet been verified by the DRA (Department of Revenue Administration), but we've sent it to them," he said, "If you take the current 2013-14 budget and the one we're working on now, we would be able to increase that budget by $340,000 to $427,000. If you take where we're at right now and add in the warrant articles, we're up $1.4 million (over last year's budget). We would have to decrease that amount by $1 million. This does have some huge impacts."
Health insurance alone is up $600,000 over last year.
"Are we being asked to vote in favor of this?" Lentini asked during the public hearing that lasted 15 minutes.
"At the end of this meeting we will be asked to vote to support it or not," Janine McLauchlan, board chairman, replied.
"I'd like to hear from the public but there is none here," Hounsell said.
Nelson said the board will hold another public hearing on this article on March 10, a week after the deliberative portion of annual school district meeting is held (7 p.m. in the Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School on March 3).
"Legal counsel has suggested we do both (Monday night and March 10)," he said.
Board member Rick Breton wondered if there were enough signatures on the petition and were they all legal.
"They do," Nelson answered. "We verified it."
Hounsell hopes voters will nix the article when they head to the polls April 8.
"This is extremely dangerous," he said. ''I'm not going to be handcuffed by such a foolish thing."
"We need to be careful with this, we need to be very careful," Nelson added.
"If our insurances are exorbitant, let's say they go up by 20 percent, you're going to have to release personnel to pay for the insurance."
"One year, we had a 36 percent increase (in health insurance)," Nelson said.
Board member Syndi White said this move reminds her of the tax caps implemented in Massachusetts a number of years ago.
"Families had to pay for children to ride the bus; it cost a couple hundred dollars for children to play school sports," she said. "Some districts didn't have the resources for paper and other supplies so families had to buy them."
White said class sizes rose because of reduction in staff due to lack of funds to support them, and after a few years towns began to override the article.
"It sounds like a great idea — no one wants to see their taxes go up," she said. "This kind of tax cap is very destructive not only to the school but to the town, too."