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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Session does its business

MERRIMACK – Town voters didn’t set any records Wednesday night at the Deliberative Session. But, after last year’s two-day marathon, no one was complaining when the session adjourned after half an hour.

About 50 residents gathered Wednesday for the town’s annual meeting, moving forward six warrant articles with little discussion and no proposed changes.

During the 30-minute session, voters pushed forward a pair of police union contracts, approved a pair of proposals to upgrade the town’s waste water treatment plant and sent forward the town’s $30.1 million budget proposal – all with little or no comment.

The six warrant articles now move forward, along with the position races, to next month’s town elections.

“This wasn’t the fastest we’ve had. I think we’ve finished in 12 minutes before,” said Lynn Christensen, the town’s longstanding moderator. “But, when you have a meeting like this, I think that’s the sign of a tightly written budget.”

As it stands now, the town’s budget proposal is about $3 million, or 11 percent, higher than the $27.1 million default budget enacted last year by voters.

But the proposed spending plan is less than 1 percent higher than actual town spending, which includes a series of capital projects not included in the default budget that were funded over the past year.

The current proposal would maintain the town’s current tax rate of 5.24 per $1,000 of assessed value.

If voters deny the budget at next month’s election, the $27.5 million default budget would increase the tax rate 10 cents, according to town officials.

“The Town Council is always basing its budgets on the desire to maintain a level tax rate,” Finlay Rothhaus, the council chairman, told the audience gathered in the gymnasium at the Mastricola Upper Elementary School. “This year is no exception.”

Not everyone is as impressed with the town’s budget proposal, however.

To keep costs down, councilors proposed to cut two vacant firefighter positions under the budget proposal – reductions that could limit the department’s ability to respond to multiple calls at once, according to Fire Chief Michael Currier.

“We’re getting more calls that are back to back, or double calls at once,” he said earlier in the week. “That’s a struggle for us.”

Like the budget, the waste water plant upgrades, proposed for the second straight year, aren’t likely to affect the tax rate, supporters said Wednesday.

The articles propose improvements to the plant’s electric and piping systems, as well as the compost facility, which brings in money to offset sewer costs, and they’re funded through sewer user fees rather than tax dollars.

“This turns out to not only be good economically, but very user friendly,” Councilor Jackie Flood told the crowd.

As for the police union compacts, if passed, they would provide the department workers with a 1 percent raise over the next year.

The patrolmen agreement will run through 2013, providing a 1 percent salary increase next year to the officers at a cost of $32,000. The second contract, covering the dispatchers and secretaries, will cost about $2,900.

“It took a lot of work between both bodies to come to some sort of agreement that will net out the best possible deal for the town,” Councilor Bill Boyd, the board’s vice chairman, said, referring to the municipal and police negotiators. “This really resulted in a lot of good will.”

Those articles, along with the budget and the treatment plant items, will now move forward to the town’s April 10 elections.

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or