HAMPTON — Voters shot down the town operating budget and other big-ticket warrant articles at Town Meeting Tuesday, leaving some officials concerned not enough was done to promote the town's needs at the polls.
The town's $28,141,882 proposed operating budget was rejected with 1,057 "yes" votes and 1,671 "no" votes, residents turning down the budget for the second year in a row. Voters also rejected warrant articles adding four new firefighter positions, a part-time code enforcement officer and $100,000 to go towards a reserve fund for updating sidewalks.
The town will now operate using the default budget of $27,595,116, which is the amount of last year's budget plus any contractually obligated added costs. Town department heads will adjust their spending to operate within the default budget's bottom line, according to a statement from Town Manager Fred Welch and Deputy Town Manager Jamie Sullivan.
"In the coming weeks the Board of Selectman will be evaluating with the town manager and department heads what, if any, specific services will be impacted and how best to respond to meet the priorities of the community," the statement read.
Selectman Jim Waddell said he believes each of the items put forth by his board this year were necessities and that the town needs to do a better job of communicating those needs to voters.
"We have to do, as a board and as a town, a better job of selling our budget and the needs of the town," said Waddell. "It's so important that people look at the amount of money being spent, but also on what the needs are and why that money's being spent."
Members and supporters of the Rational Taxpayers of Hampton, a political watchdog group which releases a voter guide known as the “Yellow Sheet" each election season, were glad to see voters reject many costly items. The group projected the town would see an increase of about 7 percent in the town's taxes, and its spokesman Norm Silberdick said the vote Tuesday brings the increase closer to 5 percent.
Former Selectman Richard Nichols, who said he often agrees with the Rational Taxpayers, said voters appear to be more concerned recently with spending than in past years. He pointed out that Hampton voters passed their portion of the Winnacunnet Cooperative School District's budget by less than 1 percent and approved the SAU 90 budget by just over 1 percent.
"I think the message is that people are becoming more concerned about their taxes," said Nichols. "I think that's a trend."
Many at the polls who voted down the budget and other articles said limiting spending was a priority, some saying they followed the Yellow Sheet as well as recommendations by the Budget Committee.
"I came to shoot down the budget," said Barbara Nicholson, who voted with her husband Dan. "We're on a fixed income."
Selectman Mary-Louise Woolsey said she believed the budget and other proposals were necessities but got the sense this election season residents were reluctant to support many increases.
"I didn't have any great expectation," said Woolsey. "I think the board, as a board, tried to put together what they felt was proper to run the town this year, but I think it just got negative feedback."
Voters also rejected less costly items that residents argued were unnecessary for taxpayers to fund, like $10,000 to go towards the Town of Hampton Naval Committee and a citizen petition seeking $6,500 for American Legion Post 35 to buy 200 bronze service flag holder grave markers.
Voters still approved three-year contract extensions for police patrolmen and sergeants that will bring 2.8 percent raises in each year. Attorney Joe McKittrick, who represented the police association, said the raises were deliberately kept no higher than the cost of living increases Social Security recipients would receive. Both contracts passed with nearly 70 percent support.
Hampton Police Chief Richard Sawyer said officers appreciate the support from the community, having said pay increases are important for retaining officers at a time when fewer people want to enter the field.
"I think the taxpayers recognize their good work, and so it's great to hear that the taxpayers rewarded them," said Sawyer.
Other warrant articles that passed included one for $110,000 to purchase a parcel of land off of Timber Swamp Road, $300,000 to go towards the Road Improvement Capital Reserve Fund and new public works vehicles and upgrades. The town also voted 1,565 to 1,001 to reestablish the town's Heritage Commission.
Homes built or substantially renovated near the marsh will now have to be raised on pilings, as voters passed an article 2,125-517 establishing the requirement. Opponents of the article said it was an infringement of property owners’ rights, but those who voted for it said it was an important step in protecting against flooding and sea level rise.
“I’m certainly not for the government being involved in our everyday lives, but I think sometimes people left to their own better judgment sometimes don’t use their better judgment,” said Steve Fraser. “Some type of regulation, I think, is at least feasible.”