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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Merrimack trash vote leaves council to pick up pieces

MERRIMACK – Voters, angered over a controversial waste proposal, threw Merrimack’s spending plans out with the trash this week, leaving town officials to clean up the mess.

Concerned over the Town Council’s decision to include “Pay As You Throw” in the budget, residents voted down the $29.3 million spending plan in Tuesday’s annual elections, along with nearly every question put before them.

They rejected spending requests to restore staff to the Police and Fire departments and to build a new fire station on the south side of town, among others. But it’s the budget vote that has councilors questioning where to go from here.

The election results leave the council to implement a $27.2 million default budget – about $2.1 million, or 7 percent less than the current year’s spending plan.

“This election, more than anything else … it was about ‘no,’” Councilor Dan Dwyer said Wednesday. “And I think that comes down from ‘Pay As You Throw.’

“(Voters) came out yesterday, and they said no to just about everything,” he said. “It was an angry vote, a frustrated vote, and it was all about ‘no.’”

Moving forward, the election will force the council to reconsider its priorities entering the 2012 fiscal year.

The default budget does not include provisions for “Pay As You Throw,” so councilors will have to determine whether to move forward with the plan, which would charge residents for bags used to dispose trash at the town transfer station, or to abandon it.

“I’m hoping to direct it to get people to embrace (recycling) … and turn it from a liability to a revenue stream,” said Councilor Finlay Rothhaus, who was elected to another three-year term. “But it needs to be a path of volunteering. We can’t force it on people.”

Councilors will have to revisit their other municipal spending plans.

In their initial budget proposal, councilors planned to cut two firefighters and a police officer, among other positions, to limit town spending.

The default budget doesn’t include these reductions, but the spending plan doesn’t leave room to fully fund town operations and to pursue bridge repairs, road paving and other capital projects, funded under the original budget.

Councilors will have to either cut positions or hold off on the capital projects, or pursue a combination of the two.

“It’s hard to say how things are going to turn out,” Police Chief Mark Doyle said Wednesday. “We’re going to do all that we can to make sure (the current) level of service is maintained. That’s very important for the quality of life here. … But we’re in a kind of holding pattern. … We’ll have to wait and see what the wishes of the council are.”

Residents, concerned over public safety, had proposed to restore funding for the police and fire positions through a pair of petitioned warrant articles, but voters rejected both proposals Tuesday.

The council could ask voters to reconsider their budget vote over the coming weeks at a special town meeting, according to Finance Director Paul Micali.

That would call for another budget hearing and another public meeting, like the Deliberative Session, where voters could amend the budget figure. “It would be like starting over again at the beginning,” Micali said.

Councilors are more likely to work within the confines of the default budget, which will raise the town tax rate if it stands, they said.

The default figure would increase the local portion of the town property tax to $4.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value – an increase of about 28 cents over the $4.22 rate planned under the original budget proposal.

The tax rate is higher under the default budget because that budget doesn’t include capital reserve projects, which are funded by money set aside in previous years. This leaves the amount of money to be raised by new tax revenues higher than the original budget proposal.

The increase in the rate would add about $86 to the tax bill for a home valued at $307,000, the town’s average assessed value.

“People had their reasons for supporting the (original budget), but having a lower tax rate with a lot of spending is the wrong thing to be doing,” said Bill Boyd, the council’s newest member, elected Tuesday, who campaigned in favor of the default budget.

“This budget represents the sentiment of the people who voted,” he said. “We’re going to really need to watch ... how we’re going to spend the taxpayers money.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or