FREEDOM – Despite a lengthy, heated debate, a protest letter from those opposed and three votes on the matter, the controversial $25,000 town legal fund was approved by a mere two-vote margin at Saturday’s town meeting.
Selectmen asked the town to approve $25,000 for legal services. Last year, the town budgeted $6,500 for legal services, according to the town report.
In their “Selectors Letter” in the town report, selectmen argued: “The budget committee has increased the legal services request in our administrative budget to $25,000 due to renewed legal challenges to the town over the windmill project on Beaver Ridge. Three lawsuits are now pending against the town by anti-windmill group (sic). One is over the status of the Sibley Road, one over the status of the building permit, and one over the Selectors’ refusal to accept a petition to re-enact the Commercial Ordinance. The town has voted on the windmill issue three times now and enough is enough.”
The letter states that legal battles over this issue in the past have cost the town more than $8,600 in legal fees.
That letter drew fire at town meeting from members of the Beaver Hill Landowners’ Association, which distributed a letter of its own to residents before the meeting.
The letter accuses the selectmen of making false statements, chiefly that there are three lawsuits pending against the town by the anti-windmill group.
“In reality, there are no lawsuits pending with regard to either the status of the building permit or the Selectors’ refusal to accept a petition to re-enact the Commercial Ordinance,” the letter states. “We have only one request before the Court, to clarify the status of the last 1,000 feet of the Sibley Road, which, like many other roads, was discontinued by a town vote… We are not asking for money or damages from anyone in this request.”
The association also argues that the town does not need to be a party in the legal battle over the windmills, and that the town attorney filed a motion last year to dismiss the town as a party, but selectmen objected to this action and kept the town involved.
“We interpreted this action by our Selectors as an attempt to inject the town into the middle of this disagreement in order to further the plans of Ron Price, Beaver Ridge Wind and its investors,” the letter states. Ron Price is a selectman. “The selectors’ action also causes the town to pay for legal services that should be paid by the developer. This disagreement over the wind turbines is not between us and the Town of Freedom. It is between us and Ron Price, Beaver Ridge Wind, and its investors. We are not asking the town to fund our legal expenses. Ron Price and Beaver Ridge Wind should not be asking the town to fund their legal expenses either.”
When the article on the legal budget came before the voters, Steve Bennett and others argued against spending the money, reiterating arguments from the association’s letter.
“The town does not need to be taking sides in this fight,” Bennett argued.
His comments were followed by a burst of applause from supporters, which were gaveled down by Moderator Walt Whitcomb.
Ron Price argued that the actual article in the town meeting warrant did not mention the wind turbine fight. He said the money would be needed for other issues as well, including dealing with the Skidgell property.
Several times the debate grew heated and voices were gaveled down by the moderator.
The first vote on the article was a show of hands that was too close to call. The second vote called for secret ballots, but Whitcomb ruled the secret ballot count was unclear because several people tore their ballots in half rather than circling their intended response of “yes” or “no” to the article.
Instructions for the proper voting procedure were repeated and a second secret ballot vote was taken.
This vote was announced as 32-30 in favor of the $25,000 legal fund.
The residents approved the proposed $419,929 budget, though there was much discussion and debate whether to cut items from the budget.
Bennett argued that while the town report presented the budget so that it looked like it had decreased by about 3 percent ($14,147), it had actually increased by $31,000 over last year.
He pointed out items in the Public Works budget that the town report stated were appropriated at last year’s town meeting and argued that those items were not appropriated at that time.
The town report states that the town approved a $434,077 budget last year, making it appear that this year’s budget represented a decrease. However, the town actually appropriated $389,069 last year, making this year’s $419,929 budget an increase of $30,860.
The town report states that the proposed 2008 public works budget is $163,500, down $21,000 from last year. However, in the same town report, as part of the “selectors letter” it is stated, “Since January we have exceeded our winter roads budget by $37,000,” and “It has been hard to hold the line on municipal spending in the proposed 2008 budget. Oil costs, whether it (sic) for heating the town office, garage and fire department or running our plow trucks and fire engines, has risen sharply.”
“The bookkeeping here is leading me astray,” Bennett commented.
Price also acknowledged during debate over the public works budget that some contracted services under that budget were not put out to bid.
“Then it’s an illegal expenditure of town funds,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t budgeted. What are we going to do about it?”
Another resident noted that it has been the worst winter in 20 years and sometimes you have to overspend because you have to keep roads open for emergency vehicles.
Residents voted to allow selectmen to transfer $50,000 from the general fund with $30,000 of that going to winter roads and $20,000 to be used to offset property tax assessment for the tax year 2008.
Townspeople voted down a proposal to see if the town would increase the salt in the winter sand and salt mix. The measure would have driven the budget up.
By Daniel Dunkle
31 March 2008
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