Big decisions are looming for the Town. Key issues include what to do about the Memorial School, how we fund all of our many infrastructure needs, how we staff our public safety operations, and what future growth should be allowed and where. There are large financial implications with all of these. What balance we strike between meeting our various needs and collecting the taxes people are willing to pay will determine the outcome of many of these issues.
Voters approved moving ahead with a Memorial School project with the approval of funds for the feasibility study. Thus, both the Essex Board of Selectmen and the Manchester Board of Selectmen have set next year’s state elections, scheduled for November 6, 2018, as the date of the ballot vote to approve funding for the Memorial School project. This means both towns will hold fall town meetings prior to this date as voters must first approve the funding at their respective town meetings before the ballot vote takes place. We have 10 months to develop the preferred plan and funding strategy for the Memorial School project. (Manchester’s Fall Town meeting will need to take place next September with the warrant posted by the first of that month.)
The work of the School District’s Memorial Building Committee is in full swing. A second community forum is set for November 1st at the Memorial School. (The first forum was held October 4 – see the District’s web site for detailed information on work to date.) Two identical sessions are planned, one at 9AM and one at 7PM. Continued discussions about the preferred location for the project and whether the school should be renovated, renovated with some additions, or torn down and a new building constructed will be on the agenda. Once a preferred path is decided, design work and cost projections get underway. This work will need to be completed by June in order to get a green light from the state by the end of August setting up the two votes next fall.
The Memorial School project is just one of many facility and other infrastructure projects that are competing for taxpayer support. The strategy we have developed for non-school related capital projects is to time projects so that we take on any new debt as we retire previously approved debt. This strategy keeps tax dollars devoted to capital needs fairly constant. The School District’s current debt for the middle-high school goes until 2034. While the annual debt payments are getting smaller every year, they are not dropping quickly enough to allow them to be redirected to fully fund a Memorial School project. And in addition to the Memorial School Project, there is the Essex Elementary School Project which also likely needs to be done before 2034.
How should we manage this? Will voters be willing to pay the higher taxes new school debt might require? Do we put off other town capital needs and redirect funds to the school projects? Do we look for operational savings and/or reduced services in town and school budgets to help pay for the needed facilities and other infrastructure projects? Or do we allow for greater commercial growth in town as a way to expand our tax base? If so, where and following what standards?
The question of growing our tax base is one of the key questions the Master Plan Committee is addressing. The Committee is anxious to hear from residents about this and other critical questions (e.g.: How do we best preserve community character? Are there opportunities to better capitalize on our harbor? How do we best preserve our natural resources? What new housing options are needed in town?) A final survey for the work of the Committee is available on the Town’s web site. Have your voice be heard – please take the time to complete the survey to help us answer some of the big questions facing our community.