The Annual Town Meeting is here! We gather as a community on Monday, April 3 at 7:00PM in the gymnasium of the Memorial School to take up the business of the Town. There are 22 items to discuss and vote on, as presented in the Finance Committee Report (delivered to all households last Sunday.) If you did not receive a copy, you can pick up a report at Town Hall, read it on line at the Town’s web site or get a copy when you come to the Annual Town Meeting.)
For those wanting to know more about the procedural aspects of Town Meeting, Moderator Alan Wilson and Town Clerk Denise Samolchuk host a “pre-meeting” this Saturday at 9:00AM at Town Hall. The focus is on the procedures to be followed for each article – any debate on the merits should wait for the actual Town Meeting.
The majority of the 22 articles are related to budgets. Over the last few weeks I have been reviewing specifics of the numbers as well as the content of the non-monetary articles. We have fewer articles this year – at the risk of jinxing us, I will venture to say we should be able to finish all of them Monday evening. The Selectmen are planning to hold a special Town Meeting in October to take up various bylaw proposals. In this way we can avoid an excessively long meeting.
During the development of the budget over the past few months, the areas that have received the most attention are public safety operations, town capital expenditures including Community Preservation projects, and the regional school budget. These three areas present our biggest challenges.
Determining the right number of police and career fire fighters requires us to balance our desires for insuring our safety and the high costs of being ready for all emergencies all the time. In the past the Fire Department has had a good pool of call fire fighters from which to draw manpower during a larger fire. The number of volunteers has shrunk significantly in recent years. Is this a temporary trend or the new normal to which we need to adjust? Strong mutual aid protocols with our neighboring communities help but we may need to explore other options as well. Public Safety is an area we already spend comparably more than our sister towns. Voters in the past have approved high levels of service. We are at another crossroads in the balancing act of service levels and costs.
Re-investing in our aging infrastructure remains a high priority as we continue to experience pipe breaks and service disruptions. A lengthy list of projects is presented in Article 5. A new bond is proposed for sewer and water system improvements. And another list of projects is proposed in Article 10, proposed by the Community Preservation Committee. While these projects have been well vetted by the Selectmen and Finance Committee, voters may have questions here before they are ready to vote their approval. These expenditures may generate some of the longer discussions of the evening.
The largest single expenditure proposed is for Manchester’s share of the regional school budget. Because Manchester’s student population is growing relative to Essex’s student population, Manchester is picking up a larger share of the District’s budget. This is putting a strain on our overall finances especially when considering the upcoming needs to renovate or replace the Memorial School and, down the road, the Essex Elementary School.
Please let me know if you have a specific question you would like to ask prior to Monday’s meeting. The detailed budget proposal is available for review on the Town’s web site. I look forward to a large turn-out and robust debates for Monday’s Annual Town Meeting. Let’s be a model of citizen engagement and civil discourse as we gather for this critically important meeting.