School Board plan aims to keep budget costs down

MERRIMACK – The School Board has approved a plan to work with selectmen and representatives of other town boards and organizations in an effort to hold down costs in future budgets.

The plan will now be presented to the selectmen with the hope they will support it.

On Monday night, School Board members adopted the Master Plan for Affordability of Public Services proposal by a 5-0 vote.

The board endorsed the idea at a meeting two weeks earlier, but held off on approving it in order to tweak the wording.

The intent of the proposal, originally drafted by Chairman Ken Coleman and revised by member Rosemarie Rung, is to “define a plan that would provide adequate and appropriate services to the residents of Merrimack within an affordable tax structure.”

The goal is to prevent in the future what happened this year – tax bills that were up an average of 19 percent with the tax rate up 9.4 percent.

While the cause for the tax increase was varied – generally, an increase in home values and spending at a time when state revenues decreased – it prompted both school and town government officials to pledge to hold the line on spending in the near future.

Next year, the town and school budgets will face added pressures.

The town will have to absorb the first full year of paying to transport trash out of town because of the closing of the landfill, and the school district will face the operating costs of a new middle school scheduled to open in September.

Selectmen have placed a 3 percent cap on controllable expenses in each town department this year. Last week, they voted to trim 5 percent, or $1.3 million, off the roughly $26 million proposed town budget for 2004-05.

The School Board in September agreed to the principle of working with school administrators on budgets that maintain the current level of services

Coleman’s affordability master plan outlined a five-point plan of attack. It would:

n Analyze Merrimack taxes in comparison to other New Hampshire towns that offer similar municipal services.

n Find areas where the town and school district could share services.

n Look at instituting “impact fees,” such as fees developers pay when building new homes.

n Find other sources of revenue, such as fees and other taxes, to offset the burden of property taxes.

n Identify a growth strategy for the town.

Members of the master plan committee would be established jointly by the selectmen and School Board, but membership would include representatives from others boards and organizations, such as the Merrimack Village District, Planning Board, Budget Committee, library trustees, Chamber of Commerce, Merrimack Youth Association, School Building and Planning Committee, as well as citizens at large.

In an earlier interview, Selectmen’s Chairman Dick Hinch said he had spoken to Coleman about the idea, which he endorsed.

“I think his idea was brilliant, and I’ll be thrilled to work with him on this venture,” Hinch said.

Coleman said Monday that he would ask to be put on the Board of Selectmen’s agenda as soon as possible to present the proposal.

The two boards most responsible for overseeing town spending have worked at cooperating on common goals in the past few years, a marked change from the past when the boards were often at odds.

An August 1999 meeting, for example, turned contentious over the issue of growth in town, a touchy topic at the time.