Town Council proposal would phase out support for MYA

MERRIMACK – Direct funding of youth sports would be phased out over the next five years under a contract proposal submitted by the Merrimack Town Council.

While members of the Merrimack Youth Association are crying foul and making their concerns public, town officials caution the proposal was only the first offer in contract negotiations.

“The MYA is a great organization. They provide a great service to the community. I don’t think that’s an issue,” said Town Manager Keith Hickey. “I think the council philosophically is trying to have organizations become self-sufficient,” he said.

From Terry Benhardt’s perspective, self-sufficiency would come at a high price.

It’s bad enough the town funding for the next fiscal year would drop from $131,000 to $110,000, said Benhardt, the MYA’s longtime president. Worse, the council has proposed to then cut 25 percent of that amount from the budget for each of the four subsequent years to phase out public funding.

“We’ve been around a long time. We can weather a couple of storms,” he said.

But no funding from the town might be too big a hit, Benhardt said.

The town’s contribution represents from 22 percent to 25 percent of the MYA’s total budget of $485,000, with the rest coming from registration fees and fundraisers, Benhardt said.

With no money from the town, registration fees would have to be raised substantially, and fundraising efforts ratcheted up a notch or two, he said.

It’s tough now to raise money given the belt-tightening many homes and businesses have had to do because of the economy, Benhardt said.

The MYA provides programs for youths ranging from kindergarten through high school. About 4,300 kids participate each year, Benhardt said.

Programs include Little League and Babe Ruth baseball, soccer, softball, lacrosse, wrestling, football, cheerleading and basketball.

The MYA’s contract with the town expires June 30, the last day of the current fiscal year. Discussions about the contract negotiations have lit up the town’s online forum,

The council’s offer was a starting point in the contract negotiations, Hickey said. He hadn’t heard back from the MYA or received a counter offer, he said.

“At this point, I don’t expect to see a counter-offer based on what I’m seeing in the forum,” Hickey said.

“Absolutely, nothing is a done deal at this point in time,” said Tom Koenig, Town Council vice chairman.

Beyond that, because of ongoing negotiations over the MYA contract, “there’s not really a whole lot I can say right now,” Koenig said.

The MYA chose to make the negotiations public, which the town council can’t do, Hickey said.

Benhardt said the MYA executive board and program directors are scheduled to meet tonight to discuss where to go from here.

The council met with Hickey in a closed meeting to discuss strategy heading into the negotiations, the town manager said. Those minutes were sealed, but Hickey expects them to be unsealed next week.

“At this point, there’s no reason to keep them sealed,” he said.

In the closed meeting, the council discussed its goals and gave Hickey his “marching orders” heading into the negotiations. Hickey brought the council’s proposal to a three-member negotiating team from the MYA.

There has been a lot of misinformation about the council’s intentions, Hickey said.

There was never any discussion about requiring the MYA to lease fields, or to drive the organization out of the town-owned MYA building on Daniel Webster Highway, Hickey said.

Also, the town would continue to indirectly support the MYA by maintaining fields, he said.

Merrimack is unusual in how much taxpayers’ money it gives to a private sports organizations, Hickey said. The town surveyed 24 communities in New England and found most don’t provide funds.

Exceptions include Plaistow, which gives $500; Moultonborough, $10,665; Waterbury, Conn., $1,000 to $6,000; Sturbridge, Mass., $5,000; and Springfield, Mass., which gives $50,000 for officials and staff.

In Hudson, some youth sports are sponsored by the town recreation department, and others by private organizations, said Steve Malizia, Hudson town administrator.

The town of Hudson doesn’t give money to the private groups, Malizia said.

The Merrimack Town Council hopes to make all private organizations self-sufficient, Hickey said. For example, it cut funding for the summer day camp, and now requires residents who drop off items such as refrigerators at the transfer station to pay the full amount to have the items carted away, Hickey said.

Still, Benhardt feels by cutting funding, the town is turning its back on a long and successful partnership with the MYA.

“This shows a division in that partnership,” he said.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or