Telegraph, The (Nashua, NH)

April 13, 2006
Section: Editorials

Merrimack change will be profound


BACKGROUND: Merrimack voters sent a loud cut-the-tax message to town leaders Tuesday by their choice of candidates and the approval of a reduced town budget.

CONCLUSION: The upheaval reflects the mood of voters seeking relief from escalating property taxes despite the population growth in many southern New Hampshire communities.

The cut-the-property-tax mood that began in Nashua in November and rippled through most towns in March has dramatically swept over Merrimack.

Gone are the incumbents from the board of selectmen and the school board. Going soon is the board of selectmen itself in favor of a new form of town council government to be installed July 1. And while the school budget and warrant articles escaped the ax, the town operations suffered deep cuts.

Wiped out in the Tuesday election was $2.5 million laid away over a decade to build a new library. The money instead will be used to lower the property tax rate. That's a foolish move. It's instant tax-cut gratification by throwing long-term planning overboard.

Building up the library capital reserve fund was like saving up for the purchase of a house to reduce future mortgage payments. The majority of voters instead chose to blow the money on a one-time, feel-good property tax cut, and if the new library is ever built, they'll have to borrow the entire construction cost. The bond payback, with interest, then becomes a fixed part of the operating budget for 20 years.

The voters reinforced the hand of Selectman David McCray who has gained two allies on the board of selectmen, Betty Spence and Mike Malzone. McCray is in a good position to become chair of the group whereas in the past he was marginalized as a one-man minority.

Spence, former assistant town manager, was a reclusive candidate, relying on her resume, her Web site, road signs and the endorsement by the anti-tax Merrimack Cares group to gain voter acceptance.

She put herself off-limits to reporters seeking to question her before the election. Thus she could not be publicly questioned about her pension agreement or the circumstances of her extended leave of absence before her retirement from town employment.

As a selectman, Spence will have to come out of the shadows to vote on issues and explain her positions.

Even though McCray raised a ruckus by exposing a confidential deal to improve Spence's pension, which led to her suing the town and Merrimack incurring legal expenses, she and McCray have apparently formed a political alliance. Go figure.

Ken Coleman, long a driving force to improve the Merrimack school system, was ousted by Merrimack Cares co-founder Jenn Thornton, but all school warrant items gained voter approval. School expenses, though, have the biggest impact on the property tax rate, but the voters took their wrath out on the town government's side of the ledger.

Merrimack Cares at the deliberative session lopped $1.5 million across-the-board from the proposed town budget, a move that the voters approved. The new budget of $25.1 million is 3 percent less than the current spending level. The Merrimack Cares candidates elected to the council will now have to pick and choose which accounts to adjust to live within that reduced budget. That's going to be a big job.

The property tax as the principal revenue source for local operations is under stress in southern New Hampshire. The region in recent years experienced a period of expansion as new schools came on line and municipal governments added staff, new facilities and programs to meet the needs of growing populations.

But tax rates have shot up, fueling resentment that is being felt at the ballot box. The pendulum has swung and these are definitely hold-the-line days, though the property tax will continue to be stressed unless New Hampshire decides to diversify the way cities and towns raise money to support themselves.

Copyright, 2006, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H. All Rights Reserved.