Amherst considers a moratorium on road repair

AMHERST – In 2010, Amherst voters approved a $15 million bond to rebuild or repair the roads after townspeople complained for years that the roads are deteriorating.

Each year, the town has spent some of that money, but now officials are wondering if it’s time to take a break. As they put together a budget for the next fiscal year, they say other needs are being shortchanged for the sake of smoother roads, because of the principal and interest charges that have to be paid off.

At a recent selectmen’s meeting devoted to the budget, Selectman Mike Akillian suggested a one-year moratorium on spending for roads.

“I think we need a public debate,” on adjusting priorities, Akillian said. The Department of Public Works badly needs replacement vehicles, he and other officials say, and wages for Emergency Medical Service workers need to be increased because there is a big disparity between Amherst and other towns.

“We have already spent $8 million (on roads), and we have a ballooning principal and interest on bonds,” said Chairman Dwight Brew at the board’s Nov. 25 meeting.

On the other hand, doing the roads more slowly will likely cost more, but board members seemed to agree they need to raise the issue and talk to townspeople about their priorities. Are roads the highest priority? Do they want instead more recreation programs for retirees, more sidewalks, for example?

In a recent phone interview Akillian, who is the board’s liaison to the Amherst and Souhegan school boards, said the board wants to look at the entire idea of economic planning from a much broader perspective, and wants to join with school officials and the two budget committees to do that.

This kind of strategic planning started with department heads, who developed long-range plans over the summer and presented them to selectmen this fall, and the process gave everyone a better idea of the town’s long-term needs.

But it’s clear there is just not enough money for the town in the spending “pie,” Akillian said, because of the high cost of the schools. The ratio of school-to-town spending is 80/20, “one of the highest around, he said. “With the decreasing school population we might expect” costs to go down, but that is not happening.

Akillian also said the town might want to consider an economic plan that increases the taxes paid by industry and commercial businesses to take some of the burden off homeowners, “especially retirees who would like to age in place.”

To encourage commercial and industrial development, for example, the town might want to look at bringing in sewer extensions from neighboring towns.

Just to develop a such a plan, beginning with a cost/benefit analysis, could take five years, he said, but the effort could be worth it.

There are a few obstacles standing in the way of town-wide strategic planning, including the traditional separation of school, town and even library governance. There is no mandate for these entities to work together, but “everyone likes the idea,” the selectman said.

Town Administrator Jim O’Mara, said he was glad to see Akillian raise the issue of a roadwork moratorium so that officials can focus on what investments might be made in other areas. Since the town has already used 60 percent of the bond, “I don’t think it would be going against the wishes of voters,” he said.

For more about Amherst town department strategic plans go to http://amherstnh.gov/board-of-selectmen-initiatives/.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@
cabinet.com.