Council waiting to gauge proposal

MERRIMACK – More discouraging economic news clouded the Town Council’s budget hearing Thursday night, as its members cautiously moved forward with a $31 million spending proposal for next year.

The news stemmed from Gov. John Lynch’s own budget pitch earlier in the afternoon.

Along with money that the state sends to all communities, Merrimack is scheduled to receive $1.4 million next year through various programs, such as highway block grants.

But Lynch, council Chairman Tom Mahon said, is proposing to eliminate that money, which would create a significant gap in how town expenses will be paid for in 2009-10.

The state Legislature won’t likely make a decision about the governor’s budget until June. So without any immediate specifics from the state, councilors opted not to move just yet.

>>Town Meeting ‘09<< In the meantime, Town Manager Keith Hickey did say he'd meet with department heads in the coming weeks to get options together in anticipation of a shortfall. "We're hopeful that over next few days, the governor's detailed budget information will be made available to the residents of New Hampshire . . . so we can get a better sense of what that impact will be to the town of Merrimack and how to address that impact," he said. That potential income problem tails what has already been a challenging budget cycle in Merrimack, including layoffs and cutbacks across the board. At Thursday's hearing, a half dozen residents asked the council to reconsider its $31,000 cut to the Merrimack Youth Association, which provides sports programs to kids throughout the year. That cut represents more than 20 percent of the organization's budget, said Avery Finver of East Chamberlain Road, who has been involved as a coach, board member and MYA director for 15 years. With other revenue sources drying up, such as fundraising with strapped local businesses and parents, the town's cut is "very difficult to swallow," Finver said. Councilors ultimately voted to add $10,000 back into the budget for the organization. Public comment was otherwise sparse in the hourlong hearing. Steve Laurin, whose job as assistant planning and zoning administrator was proposed to be cut in the fall, asked councilors to consider the risks in eliminating his position, specifically regarding meeting state filing deadlines for development and reducing potential liabilities. The council made no other additions, but approved an overall budget of $31.59 million. That proposed plan now belongs to the voters, who can make changes at Deliberative Session on March 10.