This Groundhog Day, voters across Southern New Hampshire will come out of their dens and — whether they see their shadow or not — head to Town Hall or the local school gym to learn what’s afoot with their tax dollars.
An eight-day festival of deliberative sessions throughout the region starts Saturday. By the time the sun goes down a week later, everyone in town will have a pretty good idea where the votes will be come Town Meeting.
That is Tuesday, March 12, the day voters cast ballots, allowing plenty of time for less formal debate over coffee, beer or the backyard fence.
What happens at the deliberative sessions matters in the life of a community.
“It’s important,” Atkinson Selectmen’s Chairman Fred Childs said. “This is the only way you can change things. Whatever happens at the deliberative, that’s what goes on the ballot.”
The most important moment in the process is when people vote on Town Meeting Day, but deliberative session is significant, Hampstead moderator Neil Reardon maintains.
“Deliberative session actually prepares the ballot,” Reardon said. “A change in a warrant article can change the outcome of a vote. So they can, at that meeting, significantly affect the vote.”
Most of the focus is on the town and school operating budgets that fund services.
Some communities will have it easier than others.
“We’re pretty good. We may be up a hair, within a half percent increase,” Childs said. “I know other towns, like Salem, had it tougher than we did.”
Budgets aren’t the only topic for discussion.
Windham voters will discuss a $31 million middle school plan.
Salem voters consider putting $17 million into renovations at Fisk, Soule and Haigh schools.
Pelham voters will hear about a $1.7 million kindergarten addition and an $895,000 proposal for renovating Town Hall to house School Administrative Unit 28 administrators.
Hampstead voters have a proposed $1.64 million police station to discuss.
Plaistow voters will talk about a $25,000 architectural study for the public safety complex and a $400,000 fire suppression water line along Route 125.
When it comes to spending, Granite State Taxpayers chairman Jim Adams likes to keep in mind what he learned at home as a boy.
He thinks voters would be wise to ponder the philosophy: “There are things we want to do, things that are fun to do and things we must do.”
Adams always encourages taxpayers to watch the spending. He’s troubled by the growth in SAU budgets and what he sees as redundant administrative services.
“What do students get out of that?” he said.
How voters will approach spending this Town Meeting season is hard to tell, Adams acknowledges.
He senses towns are beginning to realize there is no pot of gold in Concord, but some will take advantage of opportunities.
“If communities have put off a new building, they may see if there is any help from the state and maybe bite the bullet to do that,” Adams said.
Reardon’s advice to voters is come prepared for deliberative.
“They should be well informed,” he said.
Windham moderator Peter Griffin agrees.
“Take a look at the warrants and see what you are voting on,” he said. “If you have a question, contact the department head or the administrative office.”
There’s also some etiquette involved.
“People don’t understand it is a business meeting,” Griffin said. “You should conduct yourself as if you were in your own office at a business meeting.”
“Be polite and courteous,” Reardon said.
That means refraining from booing a speaker or even applauding.
“Don’t heckle or call each other names,” Griffin said.
Reardon said the whole point of this democratic process is to listen to what others have to say, even when we disagree.
Reardon, a veteran moderator, is still second guessing himself for letting people applaud good speakers at the last deliberative. That led to hissing when someone aired an opposing view.
“I get upset by that,” Reardon said. “It’s a basic, on-the-ground place where people can speak at the microphone and affect their local government.”
That wouldn’t happen in Atkinson. Three years ago, town moderator James Garrity instituted a rule that requires residents to address one another as “my good neighbor.”
In a town that has had more than its share of rancorous debate, the rule seems to have helped.
Discussions won’t be limited to budgets at the deliberative sessions.
There will be labor agreements to consider, such as the first pact for Windham teachers in several years.
Salem voters will have a non-binding question about expanding gaming at Rockingham Park. Pelham voters consider a property tax break for disabled homeowners.
Newton voters will decide whether to increase the size of the Board of Selectmen from three to five.
Zoning matters also will be up for discussion. In Windham, one warrant article lays out a Village Center District that would allow development of a traditional downtown area.
Voters can expect to run into a few candidates for local offices at their deliberative sessions. The filing period closes Friday, so some will be making their first official campaign stops.
Here is the schedule of deliberative sessions:
ATKINSON: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 10 a.m., Atkinson Academy.
DANVILLE: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 10 a.m., Danville Community Center.
DERRY: School district deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 10 a.m., West Running Brook Middle School.
HAMPSTEAD: Town deliberative, Friday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m., Hampstead Middle School.
School district deliberative, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m., Hampstead Middle School.
KINGSTON: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 9 a.m., Town Hall.
LONDONDERRY: Town deliberative, Monday, Feb. 4, 7 p.m., Londonderry High.
School district deliberative, Friday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m., Londonderry High.
NEWTON: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 1 p.m., Town Hall.
PELHAM: Town deliberative, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m., Sherburne Hall.
School district deliberative, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 6:30 p.m., Sherburne Hall.
PLAISTOW: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 10 a.m., Town Hall.
SALEM: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 2, 9 a.m., Salem High.
School district deliberative, Thursday, Feb. 7, 7 p.m., Salem High.
SANBORN REGIONAL: School District (Kingston, Newton), Thursday, Feb. 6, 7 p.m., Sanborn Regional High School.
TIMBERLANE REGIONAL: School district (Atkinson, Danville, Hampstead, Plaistow) Thursday, Feb. 7, 7 p.m., Timberlane Regional High School.
WINDHAM: Town deliberative, Saturday, Feb. 9, 9 a.m., Windham High.
School district deliberative, Friday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m., Windham High.