FROM THE TOWN ADMINSTRATOR’S Desk
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The dust is still settling on this year’s Annual Town Meeting and the budgets that were approved do not go into effect until July. Formal work on the budget that will be presented to voters at next year’s Annual Town Meeting does not get underway until October. However, the time between now and the fall affords a great opportunity before we are in the thick of another round of budget development to examine our current operations and to explore new ways of delivering our municipal services.
At this year’s Annual Town Meeting voters recommended by a very wide margin that the Selectmen and the Finance Committee pursue possible regionalization of municipal services. Thus we will be looking at additional ways we might team up with neighboring communities to realize savings and/or to improve services. Being a small community, Manchester is the equivalent to another ward for a city like Gloucester or Beverly. Are there services we can obtain from them instead of providing our own? Would this save us money or not? Would the quality of the service suffer or improve? Or do we look towards a small town like Essex for additional regionalized services, expanding on the model provided by the regional school district? We will explore the answers to these and other related questions over the coming months.
In May, after the town elections, the Selectmen will meet to establish goals for the new fiscal year. Ahead of the meeting, it would be helpful to hear from residents regarding recommended priorities. What ideas do you have for improving the efficiencies of town operations? Do you have specific ideas for services that might better be obtained through a new regional arrangement? Let me or one of the Selectmen know what ideas you have.
Of course, one of the bigger decisions that will loom large between now and next November is the question of a new elementary school. Voters will be asked to decide whether to approve the proposed project in two steps: first at a special Town Meeting in October and then again at the November state election by ballot. Any operational savings that can be realized could be redirected toward the capital cost of the new school to lower the higher tax implications of the proposed project.
Funding our capital needs remains one of the biggest challenges we face. The list of projects is long, the costs are high but the ability of taxpayers to shoulder increasing amounts of new debt must be carefully assessed. For non-school capital needs we are working hard on a new approach that relies mostly on a “pay as you go” cash basis rather than new borrowings. This allows 100% of the funds raised to go toward project costs as interest costs are avoided. The strategy assumes that voters will approve new capital exclusions as old debt exclusions are retired. This avoids higher exclusions that raise taxes even further (although it prevents taxes from declining by keeping exclusions in place substituting capital exclusions for a like amount of debt exclusion.) This strategy works on the town-side as we have a fair amount of debt being retired over the next five years and the anticipated projects are at most a few million. These same set of facts do not exist for the school district.
We should take these next few months to research new delivery models, to see what savings we can realize and to further develop our comprehensive strategy to address the many capital needs we are facing. Your input on these topics is welcomed.