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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hollis budget panel OKs selectmen’s spending plan

HOLLIS – The Hollis Budget Committee approved the selectmen’s proposed 2011 operating budget Monday night at a public hearing where residents had a chance to ask questions and comment about how their tax dollars are spent.

Like last year, the Budget Committee asked selectmen to keep spending flat, reducing costs where possible to compensate for fixed expenses such as health insurance, state retirement system contributions, payroll corrections, worker’s compensation, and life and liability insurance.

But in the end, the committee approved a proposed operating budget that is $86,068 higher than one it previously recommended.

“You guys have done a good job, and I know what kind of pressure you’ve been under,” Budget Committee Chairman Chris Hyde told the selectmen after the public hearing was over.

The proposed 2011 operating budget, which does not include costs associated with warrant articles that voters will decide in March, is $8.12 million, or $70,000 less than last year’s budget of $8.19 million.

The selectmen presented 14 warrant articles, including the operating budget, but by the end of the night, they had deleted two articles and renumbered the articles for the March ballot.

The proposed operating budget reflects significant increases in six areas: $166,414 for employee health insurance; $40,000 to repair the library roof; $35,543 for New Hampshire Retirement System contributions; $22,711 for public safety payroll corrections; $19,975 for worker’s compensation; and $10,108 for life and disability insurance.

Major decreases include a reduction of $105,653 for solid waste disposal due to lower use and increased recycling; $34,873 cut from the public works budget by cutting a position; a decrease of $26,497 for long-term debt interest; $22,153 for Social Security tax cuts; and $19,558 saved by reducing a Building Department secretary’s position to part time with no benefits.

Taxpayers filled the community room at the Town Hall, and many came with special requests.

A group of library trustees, for example, pleaded with selectmen to return $4,000 for raises cut from the operating budget.

But the board held fast to its mantra: no raises for any town employees this year.

And there were other concerns, including those of Wheeler Road resident John Anderson, who introduced a petition warrant article asking voters to stop funding the Conservation Commission through Land Use Change Tax revenues.

Anderson, who recently organized a local taxpayers’ group, said he supports the commission’s work, but wants voters to decide on land purchases at annual Town Meeting.

Currently, all purchases must be vetted and approved by the Board of Selectmen.

The Budget Committee rejected Anderson’s warrant article, 6-2.

Recently, the Conservation Commission pledged $200,000 toward the purchase by the Beaver Brook Association of an 80-acre tract known as “whaleback.” Release of the funds depends on selectmen’s approval, which is expected to be forthcoming.

In other votes, the Budget Committee unanimously supported spending $20,000 to create a trust fund, which they said was needed as a catch-up provision: The town owes municipal employees $206,000 in accumulated vacation pay, but has only a fraction of that amount at its disposal. Were all employees to claim their money at the same time, the town would be unable to meet its obligation.

The Budget Committee also endorsed, unanimously, an article to fund employee health insurance, at close to $1 million, and supported placing $37,000 of taxpayers’ money into a municipal buildings and facilities maintenance expendable trust fund.

In addition, the committee was unanimous in supporting a non-money article that allows the town to raise $50,000 for Old Home Days, and it voted 7-1 to recommend a $90,000 purchase of police and fire radio equipment, needed to improve communication across town in areas where there is no radio reception.

The Budget Committee did not take a position on whether the town should hold the annual Town Meeting on a Saturday. Nor did it endorse or reject a question to voters about what to do with the historic Farley Building.

Hattie Bernstein can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 24, or hbernstein@cabinet.com.