Anonymous mailer about new fire station circulates in Westmoreland

Olivia Belanger, The Keene Sentinel, N.H.
·4 min read

Mar. 4—WESTMORELAND — Town residents received an anonymous mailer this week that includes false information about Westmoreland's proposed fire station.

The mailer does not include any sources, but in a section titled "Facts about the Fire House Fraud," accuses the "boys with toys" of trying to hide details on the station from the public, and says the new facility would cost more than $5 million.

Both claims are inaccurate, according to firefighter Tom Finnegan.

"In a lot of ways, it's disrespectful," said Finnegan, who is also chairman of an advisory committee that the town formed to oversee the development of a new station. "We're just first responders trying to get an adequate building ... It's false information."

The fire department, according to Finnegan, has educated the public on the proposal several times, including through mailers, in-person conversations and posting the details on the town's website.

The total cost of the new station, including interest on the $2.27 million bond that would pay for it, would not exceed $2,893,500, according to Town Administrator Jo Ann LaBarre.

However, the department has not held any meetings via Zoom specifically for the proposal — which the mailer criticized — including the bond hearing.

The proposed 6,400 square-foot station would be built on town-owned land behind town hall, according to Finnegan. The current station was built in 1954.

Firefighters are pushing for a new station for several reasons, such as inadequate space for equipment in the current 3,650 square-foot station and its inability to accommodate certain health and safety protocols, according to information the department mailed out.

Westmoreland is offering in-person and drive-thru voting on the annual town ballot and warrant Wednesday. The fire station bond proposal needs a three-fifths supermajority to pass.

New Hampshire law states that political advertising must be signed by the person responsible for it. The N.H. Attorney General's Election Law Unit plans to review the anonymous mailer to "to determine what, if any, next steps should be taken," spokeswoman Kate Giaquinto said via email Wednesday afternoon.

Until the anonymous mailer, Finnegan said the department had received mostly positive feedback on the proposal, with the exception of a few negative Facebook comments.

The fire department sent out a separate mailer to residents a few weeks ago, outlining the project's costs and why it's needed, according to Finnegan. Additionally, he and other firefighters have been tabling at public places to talk with the community about the proposal.

As required, a bond hearing also occurred on Feb. 18 in person at town hall, according to the minutes. There was ample room for social distancing, Finnegan said, and masks were required.

Like other area communities that have opted out of the traditional sit-down town meeting this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Westmoreland has held two information sessions since last week via Zoom to discuss the warrant and take public comment.

The homepage of the town's website also has several documents with information on the proposed new station, including its tax impact.

If approved, the station would be paid for using a 20-year, $2,272,500 bond. According to the tax impact document, which uses estimates for the tax rates over the next two decades, a house with a $200,000 assessed value would pay a total of about $3,500 over 20 years.

LaBarre said the town received a "conservative" interest rate estimate of 2.5 percent, which officials believe will be lower once the bond is obtained. At 2.5 percent, the interest accumulated over the life of the bond would total $621,000, bringing the project to $2,893,500.

Bruce Clement received the mailer — which is postmarked for Brooklyn, N.Y. — a few days ago, addressed to "Town Resident."

"It was a very underhanded and cowardly thing to do," he said. "I don't have any problems with somebody being opposed to the new fire station, that's fine, but to put false information, clearly false information, and then to do it anonymously ... is completely unnecessary."

A majority of town residents received the mailer, according to Finnegan and selectboard member Clayton Stalker.

Stalker said he isn't sure if the board will issue a statement on the mailer, but noted board members — who unanimously support the station — are aware of the issue.

"From what I can tell, most people in the community were quite angry with it," Stalker said. "Not necessarily with the opposition to the fire station proposal, but they were angry someone would send anonymous propaganda. Our town is better than that."

Finnegan similarly said he wishes the sender would've been transparent.

"I honestly wish that whoever it is would just come forward and have a discussion, an honest discussion," he said. "I'd like all the voters and taxpayers to have all the information — but the right information — to make an honest decision."

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.