Selectmen soon to begin building next year’s budget

MERRIMACK – The Board of Selectmen will soon start the process of building next year’s town budget.

But for longer-term impact on town finances, a meeting planned for early next year might be more important.

Selectmen announced Thursday that the budget process begins with a workshop Nov. 29. That session will be followed by meetings on the next two Mondays, with the board scheduled to take action on a budget proposal Dec. 16.

Last year, in response to a 19 percent increase in tax bills, selectmen pared $1.7 million off department spending requests for the budget. The board also instituted a hiring and wage freeze and found $300,000 in revenue by increasing fees and permits.

“The board took some dramatic, Draconian steps last year,” Selectmen’s Chairman Dick Hinch said on Thursday.

Hinch said the board will continue to try to toe the line on spending.

In addition, Hinch said the selectmen and School Board will begin a process in January to look at ways the two boards could cooperate to save taxpayers’ money.

Last year, the Board of Selectmen and School Board each voted to start an affordability committee, which would look at ways the two boards could share some resources to save money.

The idea was presented by Hinch and Ken Coleman, the School Board chairman. However, the process got sidetracked by other priorities and nothing came of it until Thursday, when at the urging of Selectman David McCray, the idea re-emerged.

Plans now are for the two boards to meet jointly in January to hash out ideas. From that meeting, an affordability task force will be born to meet more regularly. Hinch said it’s too early to say what the makeup of that task force might be.

What resources the boards could share might be limited by such things as union contracts, Hinch said in response to a reporter’s question.

The new town manager, who starts in January, now works in Connecticut, where school and town budgets fall under the town’s governing board and employees from both sides of government typically pool insurance and workers compensation costs.

As an example of a “slam dunk” where immediate cost savings could be realized, Hinch pointed to the various cell phone services used by town and school employees. The affordability committee could also examine areas such as writing grants jointly and sharing some services, such as maintenance.

“I don’t believe we have ever been better poised to accomplish these things,” Selectman Chuck Mower said.

Mower noted that both he and Selectman Carolyn Whitlock previously served on the School Board. Additionally, Selectmen Tom Koenig was a longtime member of the School Planning and Building Committee.

A number of board members are veterans of the Budget Committee, including Koenig, who chaired that committee before he was elected to the Board of Selectmen last spring.

“We have a wealth of experience that has compelled us to want these efficiencies and work for these efficiencies,” Mower said.

Cooperation between the boards is needed now more than ever, resident Dennis King told the board.

After a 19 percent tax bill increase in 2003, taxes went up an additional 10.5 percent this year despite the board’s cost-saving efforts.

“A lot of people I talk to are really hurting. It’s been two years of hard hits,” King said.