Selectmen cut budget by $643,000

MERRIMACK – Both the town and school budgets proposed for next year are settling into amounts slightly more than 3 percent over current spending.

The Board of Selectmen on Thursday debated a series of reductions that Chairman Dick Hinch proposed to the 2005-06 town budget. Budget discussions were continuing at press time, but the board had cut the budget by $643,339. The cuts, slightly offset by $37,250 in budget additions that the board approved, brought the total to about $25.4 million, or about 3.8 percent over the current budget, with more cuts expected.

On Wednesday, the School District’s proposed budget for 2005-06 totaled $54,735,944 after the Budget Committee lopped $2,350 from an account for the middle school phone system. That represents an increase of roughly $1.7 million, or 3.2 percent, over the current budget.

Before Thursday’s cuts, the town’s budget for next year totaled $26.01 million, up $1.24 million, or about 5 percent from current spending.

“What I wanted to do, before warrant articles, was to get to that 3 percent figure,” Hinch said.

The largest cut approved by selectmen was $200,000 from a capital reserve account for fire equipment. The cut will still leave $200,000 in the account, enabling the department to replace a fire rescue truck. But the account would have to be built up within the next few years to save for other equipment purchases, Fire Chief Bill Pepler said.

Other cuts eliminated $150,000 that would have been spent on a highway garage office building and $100,000 for improving the town’s athletic fields. Overall, 16 line items were reduced or eliminated by the board.

Selectman David McCray thought the cuts should have gone further. McCray argued that the budget should be kept flat – meaning the spending should be the same as in the current budget.

However, McCray’s suggestions failed to win the support of the three other board members attending the meeting. Selectman Tom Koenig was absent.

Nine of McCray’s suggestions died for lack of a second. Five more proposals he made failed by a 1-3 vote, and six other times McCray was on the losing end of a 3-1 board vote.

At times, he appeared to be exasperated.

“Instead of voting ‘no’ because this motion came from Dave McCray, you should look at it to see if it makes sense,” McCray pleaded with his colleagues at one point.

Many of his proposals were for small amounts, often hundreds of dollars in office equipment and supplies. Hinch countered that many of those departments had already been hit by cuts and the amounts budgeted represented what the departments needed to function.

The largest proposed cut McCray suggested was $33,436 for a new position at the wastewater treatment plant. Hinch noted that the department argued convincingly the position was needed. When the position was added to the budget, the overtime account for the department was reduced, Hinch said.

Selectman Chuck Mower argued against cutting budgets to achieve a flat budget only for the purpose of reducing taxes. Mower reminded McCray that the state sets the town’s tax rate, not the Board of Selectmen.

“This is not a good management approach for the town of Merrimack,” Mower said about McCray’s goal of a flat budget.

The town’s budget proposal will go to the Budget Committee for a series of meetings in January.

“When the budget committee leaves here tonight, it then becomes the Budget Committee’s budget,” Hinch said.

The Budget Committee finished its work on the School District budget on Wednesday. That budget proposal now goes to a Feb. 2 public hearing.

The school budget totals include $778,032 in cuts Superintendent Marge Chiafery and her staff made in the budget requests submitted by individual schools and school programs.

“Most of the budget increase is in salaries and benefits. That’s really where it’s coming from,” said Rosemarie Rung, vice chairman of the School Board.

Seventy percent of the budget total is wrapped up in salaries and benefits, she said.

Rung objected to a series of budget cuts proposed by the Budget Committee – and by member Rick Barnes in particular. She said the cuts, which weren’t approved, failed to look at the school budget in its entirety and instead attempted to micromanage line-item spending.

Rung noted that Matt Shevenell, the school business administrator, likes to compare the budget process to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade: It’s a yearlong job to put together.

Barnes and Rung traded messages Thursday morning in a series of postings on the Merrimack Web forum (, which carried a large number of posts about the school budget.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Barnes admitted he made nearly twice the number of motions to cut the budget as any other committee member.

“Most of them died on the floor without getting a second,” Barnes said.

“Rosemarie criticized me as far as being nit-picking,” he said. However, he said he thought a number of items in the budget were extraneous – including $500 for an art drying rack.

“If I recommended cutting that item, is some kid not going to make it into college because they didn’t have a place to hang their pictures?” Barnes asked.

Barnes also recommended cutting the high school swim team. Next year will be the first year the team will be funded as a varsity sport. The funding totals about $6,000, Rung said.

Parents would still have to purchase swimsuits and warm-ups, Rung said. No sport is fully funded by the district, and each has a booster club to raise money, she said.

Rung said such petty cuts have little affect on taxes in a budget so large. Barnes countered that every little bit matters in a community that has been hit so hard by taxes over the past few years.

“I know $500 isn’t going to save millions off everybody’s taxes,” Barnes said. “But $500 here, $1,000 there does add up.”

“We look (at the budget) in its totality,” Rung said. “Our goal is to provide as good an education to the students of Merrimack at the most affordable cost.”