Amherst may buy some of Cemetery Fields

AMHERST – An article on the town warrant this year will ask for money to buy part of Amherst’s Cemetery Fields, one of two warrant articles directly related to concerns about losing playing fields at the Merrimack Road property.

At the town budget hearing held Monday, Jan. 13, Selectman John D’Angelo said that if a petition article calling for the replacement of the Cemetery Trustees with selectmen passes and there was no way to buy land at Cemetery Fields, it would be a “nightmare scenario, and we are responsible.”

The property is owned by the trustees, and the petition article is a reaction to their decision to stop all recreation activities on the 48-acre property by Sept. 1.

If the $180,000 article passes, it would allow the town to buy part of the property for recreation.

The proposed town budget for fiscal 2015 stands at $11.77 million, a 4.32 percent increase over the default budget the town is operating under now. This means a 9 cent increase on the tax rate for the town portion.

Changes in the budget include money for new financial software, a 1.5 percent wage increase for town employees, plus step increases for those who are eligible, money to help make emergency medical services employees’ pay competitive with nearby towns and added pay for firefighters for time spent training and daytime meetings.

At the time of the meeting, the operating budget had the unanimous support of both the Board of Selectmen and the Ways and Means Committee.

Selectmen’s Chairman Dwight Brew reminded people that the municipal side of the tax bill is only about 20 percent of the total tax bill and Amherst’s town-to-school ratio is lower than similar towns in New Hampshire. He noted 23 out of 31 towns in the county have a higher municipal tax rate, according to 2012 data.

The most significant aspect of the budget, he said, is a shift from year-to-year budgeting to strategic planning, which involves dialogues with citizens and town departments about “where we would like to be and what should we do each year” to get there.

Other warrant articles include money for the following uses:

? A three-year police union contract that will cost the town $36,075 this year.

? Five previously established capital reserve funds, including a new fire truck, a 2016 revaluation, the communications center, a town computer system and a new ambulance.

? A mosquito surveillance and control program.

? Establishment of a highway equipment and vehicle capital reserve fund.

? Replacement of the commercial scale at the landfill.

During the public comment part of the meeting, former Selectman Bill Overholt said the town is “terribly underpaying EMS workers” and the town’s three-year plan to raise wages is “far too long.”

In response, Chairman Brew talked about competing issues and Selectmen Mike Akillian said the $15 million road bond passed in 2008 means that the Department of Public Works is consuming 40 percent of the budget.

Overholt also questioned the cost of emergency medical services, and EMS Director Brian Gleason told him that to break even, the service would have to double its call volume and “we’d need to have a lot more people in Amherst get sick.”

Ken Miller asked when will the Mack Hill Road Bridge be fixed and why won’t it be made of wood instead of concrete. The bridge was closed in 2012 after the state Department of Transportation said it was unsafe.

Selectmen said the plan for the bridge project should be complete this spring, and DOT “is slowly moving in the right direction” in regard to funding.

DPW Director Bruce Berry told Miller a wooden bridge would not meet state requirements and stream banking near the bridge makes wood impractical.

Deliberative meeting Feb. 5

The next step in the budget process is a town Deliberative Session on Wednesday, Feb. 5, at 7 p.m., in the high school auditorium when voters can discuss and amend the warrant articles before they are put on the ballot for the March 11 election.

The public hearing was the first meeting upstairs in Town Hall since the building was renovated.

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