, Newburyport, MA

November 22, 2012

Money issues top agenda for Merrimac selectmen

By Warren P. Russo

---- — MERRIMAC — The aggressive pursuit of financial aid by a consortium of local fire and police departments is paying off in the form of a $500,000 Community Innovation Challenge grant from the state for a regional microwave communications system.

Merrimac’s fire and police chiefs collaborated with their counterparts in Amesbury, Newburyport, Salisbury and West Newbury to obtain the grant, which will provide each of the towns with the latest communications technology.

“It’s a great first step,” said Merrimac’s Deputy fire Chief Larry Fisher. “It provides a framework for future expansion, so each community can upgrade their system as time goes by.”

“Right now if one of my officers is outside their cruiser, they can’t always reach someone with their portable radios or cellphones,” said police Chief Eric Shears.

In a related issue, the use of the town’s Code Red emergency notification system has come under scrutiny by the selectmen, who sought input from the police and fire departments on establishing guidelines to make better use of the system.

“First there was the mosquito problem, then the storm, and then Halloween notices,” said selectmen Chairman Earl Baumgardner.

“My concern is that there were a lot of Code Red calls in a short period of time, and that there are so many alerts that when we have a real emergency, people will ignore Code Red.”

Meanwhile, the issue of water rates continues to bubble to the surface. Despite Finance Director Carol McLeod’s apparent best efforts, the proposed rates remain stalled at $15 per quarter, up from the current base rate of $11 per quarter, a 36 percent increase. The per-gallon rate is also scheduled to rise, to 80 cents per gallon — a 17.5 percent increase over the current per-gallon rate of 68 cents.

The proposed water rates would increase the annual cost of water for the average Merrimac household from $462 to $544, with the $164,000 in additional revenue offsetting the cost of the town’s water main improvements.

“I would still like to look at other ways to cover the cost of the water system improvements,” said Baumgardner. “This is a 20 percent increase in water rates — that’s a huge increase.”

“Given the economy, and the forecasts about the economy, we’re going to drive people out of their homes with rates like this,” he added.

According to Selectman Laura Mailman, “It’s a question of where do you go to find the money?”

Baumgardner postponed a vote on the issue due to the absence of Selectman Rick Pinciaro, adding that “I can’t in good conscience vote to raise the water rates by 20 percent. There simply must be a better way.”

Mailman suggested reducing the early-payment discount to 5 percent from the current 10 percent, and McLeod agreed to research the effects of such a change.

Items on the Merrimac calendar:

Christmas Parade through town is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 2, at 1 p.m., and the Christmas tree lighting ceremony will take place that evening.

Curbside leaf collection is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 6. Leaves should be in paper bags, and placed curbside by 7 a.m.

Café Jazz Night is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. at Pentucket Regional High School.