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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Amherst voters to put budgets to test

AMHERST – In the space of 30 minutes, the price Amherst voters would be asked to spend on a plot of land on Route 101A went from $180,000 to $1 to nearly $1 million and back again.

Eventually voters approved an article on the Town Meeting warrant asking voters to spend $180,000 to buy 6.5 acres of state-owned land on Merrimack Road that will likely replace playing fields the town will lose in two years.

The money would pay for the parcel of moderately forested land not far from a set of playing fields known as the Cemetery Fields. An agreement that allowed the town to use the land is set to expire in 2014, and the land will revert to the town’s cemetery trustees.

A good deal of debate ensued over whether the town should pay for the land and then build a set of fields or reach an agreement with private property owners to lease fields.

One amendment to lower the amount in the article to $1, essentially killing the article, was defeated. Another amendment to increase the amount to $800,000 to reflect the estimated cost to build two multipurpose fields, a baseball diamond, parking, a walking path and a maintenance building, was also defeated. Eventually, the original article was approved and sent to the warrant to be voted on in March.

The town’s proposed operating budget also was sent to the ballot without changes.

The $11.1 million budget is up about $628,000, or 6 percent, from the current $10.3 million.

Bruce Bowler, selectmen’s chairman, said the increases can be attributed to a relatively few number of items, including an increase of almost $360,000 for bond principal and interest payments.

Other increases in the proposed budget include $53,000 for health insurance costs, $63,000 for the town’s contribution to the New Hampshire Retirement System, and $85,000 for a 2 percent increase in employee salaries.

A typical Amherst taxpayer with a home valued at $325,000 would pay about $1,560 in taxes, an increase of about $129 from this year. The typical tax bill would increase by a little more than $50 from this year if the budget is turned down and the $10.8 million default budget was adopted, according to budget documents.

Another article to put $22,000 in the town’s ambulance capital reserve fund was quickly approved and sent to the warrant.

The town’s budget accounts for about 17 percent of a total tax bill, according to information provided at the meeting.

Another series of smaller articles weren’t acted on before The Telegraph’s deadline, including articles dealing with capital reserve funds, a change in the town’s property tax exemptions for elderly and disabled residents, and the purchase or lease of a Fire Department rescue/pumper vehicle.

All-day voting by secret ballot will be conducted at Souhegan High School on Boston Post Road on March 13, according to the town warrant.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph)_JoeC.)