A new Fiscal Year – New Priorities
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The Town operates on a Fiscal Year that runs from July 1 through June 30. The budgets just approved at last week’s Annual Town Meeting are for the new fiscal year beginning now. The start of the new fiscal year is also a time for the Board of Selectmen to reflect on the past year and to look ahead to identify priorities coming up, both short and long term.
Some upcoming priorities are relatively easy to identify. Diversifying our housing stock and creating more affordable housing has taken on new urgency with the proposed 40B project for Shingle Hill. We await the ruling from MassHousing as to whether the proposal will advance to the permitting stage before our Zoning Board of Appeals. (The comment letter from the Selectmen accompanied by numerous other letters from other town boards and local organizations can be found on the Town’s 40B page of our web site.) The citizen’s group, CIMAH, has accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time and the efforts of the Housing Authority in conjunction with the Affordable Housing Trust are gaining momentum. Affordable housing will be a preeminent topic for the foreseeable future.
How best to proceed with our public safety dispatch operations is another easily identified priority. The discussions that have been taking place will continue with the goal of reaching a decision in the fall in time for the preparation of the FY23 Town Budget.
Board and committee training, started before COVID, became a victim of the pandemic. The Board of Selectmen will likely be reviving this effort and put into place annual training for boards and committees to help ensure that our many volunteers have the tools they need to carry out their duties effectively and per state rules and protocols. We rely on literally hundreds of citizens to serve on various boards and committees, and we owe it to them and the people who come before them fair and predictable processes.
Another effort that began before COVID and is likely to be picked back up is the further expansion of protected lands that comprise the “Western Woods”. This area of town in our northwest quadrant contains a large expanse of undeveloped woodlands roughly west of Crooked Lane and between Route 127 and Route 128. Voters last year approved the purchase of a 12 acre parcel in this area that is contiguous to other town-owned land. There will likely be more opportunities to acquire other parcels as we work to preserve this part of town. Providing enhanced passive recreational opportunities (e.g.: hiking and biking trails) will be part of this work. The lands drain primarily into the Gravely Pond watershed and thus serve an important role in supply drinking water for the Town.
The future capacity and condition of our water and sewer utilities also came under greater scrutiny this past year in light of the proposed 40B project. This attention may warrant additional dialogue and planning. Certainly, how we protect our sewer plant from rising sea levels will be an important area to consider. We are wrapping up a preliminary look at alternatives to having our own treatment plant by joining forces with a neighboring community or by relocating our plant elsewhere. We will need to compare these options against fortifying our current plant against rising seas.
Other challenges that climate change will bring will require considerable thought and exploration of options as well. Our village core area is quite vulnerable to flooding should future sea level rise and storm surges materialize. The future of Singing Beach and other cherished coastal treasures are at risk as well. Low-lying roads may have to be relocated or substantially raised. There are efforts underway across the four communities of Cape Ann to better appreciate what is at risk and how we might work to be more resilient to the changes coming. Engaging in these discussions and laying the groundwork for future action will be important.
Other longer-term needs include the need for a Senior Center, a new DPW facility, and a bit further down the road, a public safety complex. It will behoove us to be thinking of how best to fit these into our long-range budget forecasts and capital planning.
The Selectmen will hold their annual goals and priorities workshop soon. Many of the topics mentioned here will undoubtedly come up along with others. What do you consider to be the top needs of the community? Let me or a Board member know, and we will add it to the list of possible priorities.