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Haverhill Proposes Pooling Fire Costs into Town Budget, Shifting Burden Off Villages

Haverhill residents will elect town and school officers in ballot voting on Tuesday, March 12, at the James R. Morrill Municipal Building in North Haverhill between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., voters will gather at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School to consider 20 articles on the warrant. The Haverhill Cooperative School District meeting will be held on Thursday, March 21, at the Haverhill Cooperative Middle School at 7 p.m., when voters will consider nine articles on the school warrant.

Haverhill — Town officials are proposing a new setup to fund Haverhill’s three on-call fire departments, shifting the burden off village residents and pooling costs into the town budget.

The change means a significant increase to fire department expenses in the town budget, as total fire spending would more than double to just under $381,000 in 2013.

Town Manager Glenn English acknowledged that regardless of the new setup, certain costs related to the fire departments have increased, such as equalizing pay for chiefs and officers using a newly instituted pay scale. Yet much of the increase in the town budget stems from decreasing the need for village funding. Residents in Woodsville, North Haverhill and Haverhill Corner have traditionally contributed to those fire departments twice — once through town taxes, and again through village taxes — but “the idea was to equalize funding” so that “the local village districts will not have to raise money for fire protection,” English said.

“The purpose of that was to spread the funding equally to all the town’s taxpayers because they all receive equal protection,” he said.

The Selectboard worked with an advisory committee “all year,” he said, in order to come up with the plan.

Other comparatively minor increases are peppered throughout the almost $3.7 million budget, the largest being a proposed 34 percent bump to the parks and recreation budget as the town plans to extend the town pool season by two weeks and perform maintenance to bring the pool in line with federal regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Warrant articles include a proposal to increase tax exemptions for senior citizens by $5,000 across the board, which would translate into exempting $15,000 worth of value from homes for people age 65 to 74; $25,000 for people age 75 to 79; and $45,000 for people age 80 and older; while maintaining current qualification standards.

The town hasn’t adjusted those exemptions for five or six years, English said, and the board “felt with the increased pressure on local property taxes because of state cutbacks, we wanted to relieve some of the pressure on senior taxpayers.”

If all spending and warrant articles are approved, the town would spend nearly $3.8 million, up 7.7 percent from last year.

In addition to increases in spending, the tax rate will be impacted by revenue cuts, English said: The town is feeling the impact of nearly $37,000 in cutbacks to its state highway block grant funding, “so we had to absorb that reduction,” English said. And the officials have proposed drawing $200,000 from its general surplus that passed last year to offset taxes as it struggles to maintain that balance.

The town will set its tax rate in October after finishing an assessing process, but assuming all else equal, English said the municipal tax rate would rise to an estimated $6.52 per $1,000 of assessed value, up $1.35 over the current rate. That means a municipal tax bill of $1,630 on a $250,000 home, up about $338 from 2012.

Voters will be faced with one contested election at the polls, as newcomer Daniel Marsh is vying for a one-year Selectboard seat currently held by Selectman Robert Roudebush, who is seeking re-election.

Roudebush could not be reached for comment this week.

Marsh, 58, said in a phone interview that he is not seeking to oust Roudebush in particular, but rather put his name in the hat for the seat coming up for re-election.

Marsh, who has lived in Haverhill since 1988 and owns and operates Jet-Star Auto and Star Point Trucking, has never run for town office, he said. But he said he’d like to bring his business experience to the board in an attempt to keep spending down.

“The rising costs and the taxes going up, I think that they’re not doing enough to control it,” he said. “I think I can at least maybe try to help to squash some of the expenditures they’ve got. ... I own my own business, and I know we’ve got to run the business with what we’ve got for money, and the town doesn’t do that. If they need more money, they just add more taxes.”

Marsh said he doesn’t have particular areas of the budget that he’d like to reduce, but would encourage a “general” reduction in spending, which he said was sometimes “wasteful.”

On the school side, the Haverhill Cooperative School District has submitted a $13.5 million budget plus a proposed $10,845 increase this year to teacher’s salaries, which combined mark a 4.1 percent overall increase over the budget that passed last year.

The board seeks to raise $330,000 to bring Woodsville High School in line with mandatory state safety and fire regulations, following a 2008 inspection that found the need for fire alarm system upgrades, emergency signage, lighting upgrades and fire rated separations in two areas, among other renovations.

The board also seeks to raise $100,000 for the purchase a vacant privately owned lot in between the Woodsville High School gymnasium and King Street School for future use, and an additional $22,000 to pay the first year’s principal and interest payment on the bond. Board members currently have no specific proposals for the lot, which is about quarter-acre and used to have a house on it, said SAU 23 Supertinendent Bruce Labs. But he said the lot’s position in between the district’s two properties means it “would be a prime expansion for us if we choose to do that.”

The space could also be viable as the district will likely need to complete extensive renovations on the King Street School and a home-economy and technology building in the coming years, he said.

Another article asks voters to approve more than $64,000 to add a full-time foreign language teacher at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School, where there is currently no language program to feed into Woodsville High School’s language program.

“We really feel that that’s going to be a signifcant improvement for our program, and I think also would help us attract tuition students,” Labs said.

Haverhill residents currently pay school taxes at $15.41 per $1,000 of assessed value at the local level and $2.30 for state, totaling $17.71. If the budget is approved, that would increase to $18.17. If all warrant articles are approved, it would increase an additional 71 cents, totaling $18.88.

There are two contested races on the Haverhill School Board: Newcomer John Rutherford is challenging incumbent Michelle Reagan for a three-year seat, and newcomers Keith Brown and Karianne Rives are vying for a seat left open by Donald LoCasio, who is retiring. Long time board member Patricia Buchanan is also retiring; MaryAnne Aldrich is running unopposed for that seat.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

CLARIFICATION

This article's headline has been amended. The following clarification appeared in the Tuesday, March 5 edition of the Valley News:

Overall spending on fire protection in Haverhill would increase by about 17 percent if the proposed town budget is approved, to $380,632, as the town equalizes firefighters' pay and finances a replacement truck and equipment. While Haverhill officials are proposing to eliminate a fire-precinct tax affecting residents in Woodsville, North Haverhill and Haverhill Corner and spread costs more evenly throughout town, a headline in the Feb. 28 Valley News overstated the amount overall spending would increase.