Above: The town has purchased this parcel at the corner of Main Street and Split Rock Road hoping to eventually build a new fire station there. (Ray Carbone/photo)
WARNER – It took more than four hours, but more than 300 residents crowded into the town hall Wednesday for the annual town meeting, and voted to accepted virtually every proposal offered by town leaders and fellow citizens.
The group unanimously approved an annual operating budget of $3,070,486, which is an increase of 1.7-percent over last year’s budget, and will result in a projected property tax rate of $9.82. They heartily supported a proposal to advance plans for a new fire station. They accepted the idea of asking the selectman to demolish the historic Odd Fellows building if recent efforts to sell it to a local building contractor don’t work out.
But perhaps most significantly for many, in a 270-44 secret ballot vote, the residents overwhelmingly approved spending $338,530 to construct a solar panel array nearby the transfer station. The project could defray rising costs electricity costs in municipal facilities and eventually allow the town to generate revenue by selling “excess” electrical power back to the New England grid. Last year, a similar plan narrowly fell short of the two-thirds majority needed.
“I’m going to vote for it, but very, very reluctantly. Because I’m not sure a community of this size can support that level of debt.”
Paul Goneau, resident, referrinng to tentaive plans to build a new fire station.
Solar power is popular with Warner homeowners, according to town leaders, and voters at the meeting trusted their selectman’s claim that the array will have no impact on local property taxes. Speaking for the board, member John Dabuliewicz said that $273,595 of the total costs will be financed with a low 2-percent, 12-year loan the town is taking under the state’s Municipal Finance Act, and the payments will, in effect, be paid from the savings the town realizes from solar power. The remaining $64,935 will come back to the town as a refund from the NH Public Utilities Commission for extra electricity the facility puts into the regional electrical grid, Dabuliewicz added.
But not everyone was convinced. “The way this is being packaged is slightly misleading,” resident John Heaton told the crowd. “Eversource is not a charity,” he added, suggesting that the power company will raise its rates to pay for the income it loses to solar power initiatives. “Solar is expensive,” he said.
But George Horrocks of Harmony Energy Works, which is assisting the town with the project, said that recent jumps in energy costs are not related to solar, but rather to over-estimates about the impact of natural gas in the market. “As rates go up, you’re going to save over a half-million dollars (with the solar array),” Horrocks told the voters.
Resident Paul Goneau, a former chief finance operator with the NH Housing and Finance Authority, expressed concerns about cash-flow issues in the proposal, including the lack of funds for operating costs. But town leaders said there are virtually no costs to operating the passive solar array system.
The meeting then moved on to a plan to add $182,000, including $100,000 in new taxes, to a fund earmarked for the construction of a new fire station at the corner of Main Street and Split Rock Road. Town leaders have been working on the project for several years because they maintain the current Main Street station is inadequate for a modern department. The new funds will allow engineering and design work to move forward.
Some people were concerned about the final cost of the station, which town leaders currently estimate to about $2.5 million. Bill Balsam of Waterloo predicted that rising construction costs and debt service on a building loan could eventually jump the final figure for to close to $4-million. “I’m going to vote for it,” he announced, “but very, very reluctantly. Because I’m not sure a community of this size can support that level of debt.”
In a ballot vote, the proposal was approved, 159-48.
Later in the meeting, Rebecca Couser, director of the Warner Historical Society, addressed the warrant article she supported that would have the selectmen begin making plans to demolish the 125-year-old Odd Fellows building and bring a cost proposal to next year’s meeting.
Courser said that since contractor Nate Burrington entered into negotiations with the selectmen to buy the building in recent weeks, she proposed amending the article to give the board several more weeks to complete a purchase-and-sale agreement. If there is no deal, she said, the demolition plan should move forward.
A deadline is necessary, Courser said, because previous efforts to sell the building had languished for months without resolution. “I would just like a plan in place in case this (Burrington) plan does not go through in the next few weeks,” she explained.
The amendment passed, 92-25, and the approved article passed in a voice vote.
In other actions, the voters okayed beginning voting on election days at 7 a.m., one hour earlier than it currently occurs, and the selectman announced that an informal poll before the meeting indicated some support for moving the annual gatherings to Saturday mornings in the future.
Correction: The Odd Fellows building measure approved by voters does not contain a deadline for negotiating a sale with resident Nate Burrington.
This story first appeared in the InterTown Record, March 21, 2017.