Merrimack may ponder hiring freeze

MERRIMACK – Selectmen have worked to hold the line on spending in next year’s budget, first asking department heads to trim their requests by 5 percent and then pruning an additional $1.4 million.

Still, something kept nagging Dick Hinch, the selectmen’s chairman.

Those cuts would affect the 2004-05 budget. But what about the current budget, the one that helped to unleash tax bills up an average of 19 percent?

In an effort to save taxpayers some bucks in the second half of this budgetary year, Hinch made two proposals to his fellow board members Thursday night.

The first was to institute a hiring freeze that would cover all town positions. The second was to require that selectmen approve any expenditure in excess of $500, even if the expense was covered in the budget voters approved last April.

Selectmen voted to table both ideas until the board’s Dec. 18 meeting. However, they expressed support for both, with one modification: Selectman Dave McCray proposed asking the town manager and finance director to come up with a plan by Dec. 18 for reducing the current town budget, rather than asking the board to approve individual expenditures.

In explaining his idea for the hiring freeze, Hinch said the town manager or department heads would have to justify to the board why the position should be filled.

“I have no problem if you’re doing this from a budget perspective,” Town Manager Dean Shankle told the board, in response to his input on the suggestion.

“This may be a precedent-setting trend, uncharted territory for the town as an entity to get into,” said Selectman Carolyn Whitlock.

“This is something I take seriously, and I’d like some time to think about it,” she said, asking that the vote be delayed.

Hinch said he didn’t know how much money the proposals could save, but he said the circumstances taxpayers face are extraordinary.

“The times are tough right now,” he said, adding that the board should move to cut spending in the current budget cycle.