Councilors slash two town posts

MERRIMACK – In squeezing some $400,000 out of the proposed spending plan for the coming year, town councilors on Thursday eliminated two positions and have an eye on trimming several more down the line.

A part-time fire inspector and a part-time fire prevention educator were snipped from the town’s proposed budget, cuts that may have been avoided, town officials said, if other proposals – including union concessions and a new trash and recycling program – had survived.

To try and meet the council’s budget guideline of a zero increase over the current year, Town Manager Keith Hickey also proposed trimming a full-time police officer, spots for four part-time officers, a buildings and grounds custodian, a transfer station attendant, a part-time skateboard park attendant and a health officer.

The council opted to keep the full-time police officer, but passed on money to hire four part-timers. It had not made decisions about the other positions by press time and planned to continue the process next week.

>>Town Meeting ‘09<< Changes would take effect July 1.Last fall, the council advised Hickey to present them a zero-increase budget. To meet that goal, Hickey pitched a trash and recycling program that would have saved more than $800,000, thereby bringing next year's proposed spending plan down to the guideline. But on Monday, after a packed public hearing featuring many residents in opposition, the council nixed the program. That sent Hickey to work on meeting with town leaders this week to slash $800,000 across most of the town's departments. Hickey said he visited every employee whose position was recommended for elimination, calling it "an awful thing to have to do today." He added that early in the budget season, he met with all five town employee unions to discuss some cost-savings measures not built into their contracts. He requested that they adjust their payroll schedules, which would have eliminated a finance department position, and pay more for prescription benefits, which he estimated would save the town $165,000. The unions did not agree to either. "It was understood that there could be impacts on the number of employees working in this community," Hickey said. "Some of these positions, I believe, could have been saved if the unions had been willing to work with us." In addition to personnel, Hickey came up with $151,500 due to readjustments in fuel and heating oil costs. Councilors also approved cutting $60,000 in engineering costs for a new public works garage; $75,000 in reserve fund deposits for the fire department; $25,000 for a new police car; and plenty of miscellaneous funds. At the council's request, Hickey also investigated the effect of privatizing ambulance services and cutting back on transfer station hours. The town's ambulance service brings in several hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue, so privatizing wouldn't be fiscally prudent, he said. Hickey and Public Works Director Rick Seymour were concerned that cutting transfer station operations to three days a week would cause hauling issues and traffic problems. Hickey did recommend moving to a single-stream recycling program, which would save the town an estimated $59,000 and eliminate people needing to separate recyclables at the station. Voters will have a chance to comment on the adjusted budget Feb. 12 at a public hearing and again at deliberative session, scheduled for March 10.