By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM, N.H. — When residents go to the polls tomorrow, their vote on whether to support a casino at Rockingham Park could pave the way for expanded gambling in New Hampshire.
Although the vote is nonbinding, Salem residents’ backing of plans at the former racetrack would have a significant impact on whether expanded gambling is allowed in the state, according to Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem.
Morse has sponsored legislation that could bring up to 5,000 slot machines and 150 tables games to Rockingham Park. The Senate Ways and Means Committee recommended passage of Senate Bill 152 in a 4-1 vote last week. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has said she would support a single casino in the state. Salem’s five selectmen and Town Manager Keith Hickey all have said a casino would help revitalize the community and reduce property taxes.
“We have to win that casino,” Selectmen’s Chairman Patrick Hargreaves said last week.
Morse said Salem would receive about $13.5 million in annual revenue if a casino is allowed at Rockingham Park. A Las Vegas-based company, Millennium Gaming, has an option to establish a casino at the park if a license is granted.
Millennium would invest $425 million in its redevelopment plan, Morse said, generating millions of dollars in revenue for Salem, the state and surrounding communities. That includes $80 million from the licensing fee alone and at least $100,000 in annual revenue, he said.
“I need a strong vote from Salem to make that go forward,” Morse told selectmen last week. “A positive vote from Salem (March 12) is very important.”
That’s not the only important vote Salem residents will cast.
They will be asked to spend up to $17 million on renovations to Fisk, Soule and Haigh elementary schools only a year after deciding to reject $21.5 million in upgrades to the same schools.
That vote came a year after residents agreed to spend approximately the same amount of money renovating the district’s three other elementary schools, upsetting many parents.
The School Board and Superintendent Michael Delahanty said it’s essential that residents support the renovations this year. Once those three schools are upgraded, the district intends to seek approval to renovate Woodbury and Salem High schools.
Last week, residents were offered tours of the six elementary schools to compare the newly renovated Barron, Lancaster and North Salem schools with the other three.
The renovations are requested in two warrant articles. One calls for a $16.2 million bond to upgrade Fisk, Soule and Haigh; the other seeks an additional $805,237 in improvements for Haigh.
The School Board has considered closing Haigh in the wake of declining student enrollment. The board decided to hold off on a full $5.5 million renovation of that school.
The 20-year bond would only fund $369,682 in work at Haigh in case it closes. The $805,237 would be spent to continue maintaining it as a school. At least 60 percent of voters must support the $16.2 million bond for approval.
Voters also will be asked tomorrow to approve a $37.5 million town operating budget and to spend $5.6 million on road work, and $1.1 million to replace the Bluff Street and Providence Hill Road bridges.
Other warrant articles seek $354,708 for three trucks, $250,000 for snow removal, $250,000 for an ambulance, and a proposal to sell the former Mary Foss School. Article 13 asks residents to spend $58,153 to support several social service agencies.
The proposed operating budget is $37.5 million. If defeated at the polls, a default budget of $36.9 million would be in effect.
On the school district ballot, voters will be asked to approve an operating budget of $62.2 million, a 1.4 percent increase. If defeated, a default budget of $62.4 million takes effect.
An article requests $72,232 to fund a one-year, 1.25 percent pay raise for the 188 members of the Salem Educational Support Personnel Association. The union represents school aides.
There is also a citizens petition article requesting $679,000 for a multipurpose room at Soule. The article would be voided if the $16.2 million bond fails.
If the warrant articles are approved, the school portion of the tax rate would increase 3 percent — or 38 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. It is now $12.47 per $1,000. The multipurpose room accounts for nearly half of that increase.
This is the first year Salem won’t have a second deliberative session after adopting ballot voting under the Senate Bill 2 form of government.