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Friday, February 11, 2011

Library budget big issue for session voters

AMHERST – Residents had little to say at Wednesday’s town Deliberative Session about bridge repair, the police union contract and keeping the so-called “Blue Bus” coming to town, apparently saving up their microphone time for the library budget controversy and the best way to compensate social services agencies who serve residents.

A decent-size gathering of townfolk spent about 3 1⁄2 hours going through almost 20 articles, including the town’s proposed $10.3 million operating budget, with selectmen and other town officials at the Souhegan High School theater.

In the end, the operating budget stood about $47,000 higher, after residents narrowly passed an amendment to include the amount, which is earmarked to support area health and human services agencies’ work in Amherst, in the budget rather than appear on the warrant as a separate article.

Conversely, residents turned down a petition article that would have extracted the Town Library’s annual budget from the operating budget and instead, have it appear on the warrant as its own article from now on.

Each article, either as originally presented or as amended Wednesday night, will now come before voters on March 8. The polls, at Souhegan High School, will be open from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Voters will also choose candidates for several open town offices.

As amended, the proposed operating budget reflects a roughly $586,000, or about 5.8 percent, increase over the current budget. If passed in March, it would add about 20 cents per $1,000 valuation to property taxes, which figures to be a roughly $80 increase for a home assessed at $400,000.

If the budget fails, a default budget of $10.1 million – about $200,000, or 2 percent, less than the proposed budget – would take effect.

Residents evidently agreed with selectmen and members of the Ways and Means Committee, who voted unanimously to recommend passage of the $2.1 million Bridge Replacement Bond. No comments or amendments were made on the bond, which, if passed by voters, would raise local and state funds to replace three town bridges currently on the state DOT’s “red list,” meaning their below-average condition requires they undergo regular state safety inspections.

The red-listed bridges are on Horace Greeley Road, over Pulpit Brook; Manchester Road, over Beaver Brook; and New Boston Road, also over Beaver Brook.

Likewise, residents left unchanged the police union contract, a two-year agreement reached about a month ago, and approved sending it on to voters. It calls for about $82,000 in first-year costs, and roughly $28,500 in the next fiscal year.

The 15 members, who have been working without a contract since June 2009, would get a 1 percent wage increase and restoration of the step scale starting July 1 and a 2 percent pay raise on July 1, 2012.

Meanwhile, deliberations over the petition article intended to pull the library’s budget from the general budget and make it a separate warrant article led to the evening’s longest, and arguably the most confusing, discussion.

In a nutshell, David Chen fell short of convincing his fellow residents that “transparency and voter rights” would be better served if the library budget appeared on its own on the warrant. Chen, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, spoke as an Amherst resident at the session.

“The library is different from other town departments in that it has its own elected governing body – the trustees,” Chen said, claiming also that selectmen have little or no control over the library budget when it’s a line item in the overall budget.

Selectmen and most residents disagreed, however, and the measure, although amended in wording through its companion Article 38, goes essentially unchanged to voters on March 8.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or