By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — It was only 17 degrees outside, but that didn’t stop a hearty group of senior citizens from venturing out yesterday to grill their town manager about key local issues.
While some had questions about how their tax money is spent, others were concerned about losing town services.
By the time the 45-minute session at the Ingram Senior Center ended, many of the 21 seniors were satisfied with the answers they received from Town Manager Keith Hickey.
He outlined each of the 22 warrant articles voters will discuss at the town’s deliberative session Feb. 2.
Those articles total $46 million and will be voted on March 12. If all are approved, the town portion of the tax rate would increase 4 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Hickey said voters have some tough choices to make this year, deciding what the town can afford to spend on services.
“I’m not here to alarm anybody,” he said. “I’m trying to be honest with you.”
They also must decide which projects must be done right away or can be put off.
Those projects include spending $1.1 million to replace two “red-listed” bridges on Bluff Street and Providence Hill Road. Red-listed bridges are structures the state Department of Transportation has determined are in urgent need of repair.
Two other bridges in town are scheduled to be replaced next year.
Hickey also spoke of major work needed on Pond Street, prompting 88-year-old Russell Ingram to ask, “What’s your interest rate? Have any idea?”
It was one of about a dozen questions fielded by Hickey, who urged seniors to vote in favor of the proposed $37.5 million operating budget, instead of the lower $36.9 million default budget.
Failure to back the recommended operating budget could have a devastating impact, including town employee layoffs and possibly no Fourth of July fireworks or Memorial Day parade, he said.
“It’s going to mean people,” he said, “it’s going to mean services.”
Town officials would be hard-pressed to suddenly come up with $700,000 in spending cuts if voters failed to support the $37.5 million budget, Hickey said.
No matter what happens, residents can be assured their roads will still be plowed this winter, he said.
There’s $400,000 available in a reserve account in addition $500,000 included in the operating budget and $250,000 in a warrant article. The town usually spends $1 million a year on snow removal, Hickey said.
He said the seniors and other voters will have to decide whether to spend $250,000 on a new ambulance. The request comes at a time when ambulance calls are increasing and the town has fewer firefighters than it did years ago.
That concerns 66-year-old Linda Burnett.
“It disturbs me that fire department personnel has gone down over the years,” Burnett said after Hickey’s speech. “It seems to me we have to do something at the fire department to increase personnel.”
Burnett and other seniors said they appreciated Hickey stopping off at the senior center to explain the warrant articles. Hickey said he was glad to keep the seniors informed.
“The town manager did a great job clearing it up for us,” said Josie Simard, 75.