It’s a Saturday in February. Four hours of the town’s deliberative session have come and gone. Still, those inside a half-empty high school auditorium are primed for extra innings in this annual part of town meeting season.
Sewer budgets have already been discussed. A new town dump truck is spoken highly of.
Town Moderator Paul Scafidi introduces a more contentious item: Article 29, a citizen’s petition that would implement a 3 percent tax cap in Exeter.
[Editor's note: we recommend you listen to this story.]
“I’m proposing this tax cap so we can continue to provide high quality public services while also retaining our middle class,” says Nick Gray, lead sponsor of the petition.
Tax caps limit how fast a town budget can grow from year to year. They’re a favored tool of fiscal conservatives; a way to limit spending at the local level.
“I know of seniors on fixed income who are being forced out because of the decisions that occur at Town Hall. I know of families who are struggling to make ends meet, to put food on their table, to get their kids through school, because of the decisions that we make at Town Hall,” says Gray, who is 24, wearing a black leather jacket.
But a chorus of people here at this meeting are of the opinion that Exeter—founded in 1638—has gotten along just fine all these years without a tax cap.
“I remember the day when I was a much younger man when everybody thought of themselves as a citizen,” says Doug Flockhart, who is active in Democratic politics.
“And it was people who thought of themselves as citizens--not taxpayers--but citizens first, who built our town hall, who built our library, and who built the room you are sitting in. Shame to you who say I’m a taxpayer first, and a citizen last,” he roars to a smattering of applause.
There are fewer than a hundred people in the auditorium, out of a town of 15,000. Not exactly democracy’s finest showing.
Peter Francese then steps up to the mic. He’s got a plot twist in mind.
“This is a bad idea. I’ll make a motion, we’ll see how it goes. The motion is to amend this citizen’s petition, I believe I can do that, am I correct?”
After initially being rejected by the Moderator, Francese receives a correction: he can motion to amend the number in the petition, but not its subject matter.
Content, Francese puts forward the following: “I make a motion, that the 3 percent be changed to 30 percent. Do I hear a second?”
Francese isn’t actually pushing here for the town budget to grow by 30 percent each year. What he’s doing is arguing that tax caps, which are usually around 2 or 3 percent, are short-sighted, and that they put a stranglehold on future town governments. So, by putting the number so high, he’s rendering the tax cap meaningless.
Francese and Nick Gray live less than a mile from each other, but may as well exist on different planets. Gray is young and conservative, while Francese is a demographer who has long criticized our state’s “obsession with taxes.”
A woman named Nora Arico walks to the mic. She’s on Gray’s planet.
“This is a joke, 30 percent. And this shouldn’t even be happening,” she says. “The voters are not idiots.”
It is a joke: Francese doesn’t deny that. But we’re now in hour five of the deliberative session. The audience is antsy. It’s time for a vote.
“All those in favor,” calls out Scafidi, the moderator.
Hands go up.
An equal number of hands go up. So they vote again, and again.
“Okay, we are in a queer state right here,” explains Scafidi. “First time we counted it, it was a tie, second time we counted it was a tie. The third time we counted it, it changed by one.”
Gray would later contend that this isn’t how the process is supposed to work, but the moderator is in charge, and he calls for a secret ballot. Everyone lines up.
“Okay, the votes been taken. Yes: 58, No: 41. The amendment passes,” Scafidi announces.
Peter Francese’s 30 percent cap prevails.
And, yes, that vote tally is not close to a tie. Apparently supporters worked the phones during the interval and got people to scramble over to the high school to vote.
But that’s not the end of the story, because now Nick Gray walks back up to the microphone.
“To avoid the embarrassment of having a 30 percent tax cap proposed in March, I make an amendment to change the 30 percent figure to 4 percent,” says Gray.
Four percent--that’s a lot closer to three than to 30, but still, Gray is offering the town an olive branch.
He hasn’t apparently read the room well, though, because here comes Paul Royal, who laces his monologue with math.
“Does anybody know the difference between 3 percent and 4 percent is on your town taxes if you live in a $300,000 house? It’s $1.82 a month. $1.82. $21.75 a year. But you know what it also could be? It could be the difference between having a cop show up when you need one; having a fireman show up when your garage or your house is on fire,” he says, his voice rising.
“This room has already said no. The tax cap in general is a bad idea and this 4 percent is gamesmanship. Gamesmanship being put forward by a lone wolf that has already been told today you lose,” he thunders.
Throughout all this criticism, Nick Gray doesn’t flinch, doesn’t raise his voice. He’s stoic.
“So regardless of the blowback I face in this room, I’m going to continue to stand up and fight for what I know is right,” says Gray.
This fight is over, though, as the 4 percent cap is voted down, and the 30 percent gets final approval.
That’s why on Town Meeting day next Tuesday, the citizens of Exeter will vote on a tax cap that’s not really a tax cap, and a citizen’s petition that the original citizen no longer supports.