Selectmen have more work to do on budget

MERRIMACK – As it now stands, the town’s budget for next year is $26.01 million, up $1.24 million, or about 5 percent over current spending.

However, the bottom line is still in flux with the Board of Selectmen scheduled to tinker with it twice more before voting Dec. 16 on a spending plan to recommend to voters at the 2005 Town Meeting.

“There will be some more action taken on the budget,” Selectmen’s Chairman Dick Hinch said on Wednesday. “I predict there will be some line additions, and subtractions from other lines.”

The board’s goal, Hinch said, is to forge a budget “as reasonable as possible without adversely affecting services provided to the town.”

As with last year, when homeowners were riled up over tax bills up an average of 19 percent, selectmen set a guideline for department heads to follow when submitting spending requests.This year, that guideline was to cap controllable spending at no more than a 3.5 percent increase. Last year, the board set a guideline of capping controllable spending at 3 percent.

With local property taxes up another 10.5 percent this fall, it’s uncertain whether the board will do the same sort of large-scale pruning that it undertook last year.

In November 2003, selectmen mandated that department heads cut an additional 5 percent from their budgets, for savings that added up to $1.3 million overall in the proposed budget.

The board also looked to boost revenue by increasing some licensing and service fees and instituted a hiring freeze, which is still in place.

That freeze doesn’t prohibit new hires, but requires department heads to justify the need to fill vacant positions.

“We just want to keep a watchful eye over it,” Hinch said.

The board will also look this year for other avenues for boosting revenue, he said.

Despite the 3.5 percent cap on controllable spending, the municipal budget is up 5 percent because of increases in items such as health-insurance costs, which have risen about 30 percent, Hinch said.

“Health insurance was huge,” he said.

Also, towns throughout the state must pay more into the New Hampshire retirement system, which covers municipal employees, Hinch said.

Whether the budget is drastically cut, or survives mostly intact, this much is clear: Overseeing a municipal budget provided an experience Police Chief Bill Mulligan isn’t likely to forget.

Mulligan has served as the acting town manager since last winter, when Dean Shankle left the position after a 10-year tenure. After a long search, the board hired Tim Tieperman, the town manager from Tolland, Conn., who starts work here next month.

That means this will be Mulligan’s first and only experience overseeing the budgets of all town departments. Mulligan said he considers himself a career law enforcement officer, and he said he’s anxious to return to heading the town’s police department.

“I’ve really gotten a better perspective,” Mulligan said.

Mulligan said he’s kept a hand in police department affairs, but finds as town manager he must weigh police spending requests against those from other departments.

He applies the same thought process he has employed during 31 years as a police officer, asking himself, “Do I have confidence that I’m doing the right thing,” Mulligan said.

“That’s all you can do.”