April 21, 2022
Town Meeting Monday April 25
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The Annual Town Meeting is upon us. Voters are asked to come to the Memorial Elementary School for the 7PM meeting on Monday, April 25. Childcare is available on-site – please register through the Parks and Recreation Department. Also, remember to bring your copy of the Finance Committee Report to the meeting as it serves as your guide to the articles under consideration.
A great deal of work has gone into preparing for the meeting. Budgets have been proposed and refined, recommended zoning amendments have gone through a hearing process with the Planning Board, the electronic clickers have been prepared, and COVID protocols have been put into place. I always get excited about a town meeting - it affords a wonderful opportunity for the community to gather, to ask questions and debate a wide array of topics and make decisions about the future direction of the Town. In our open town-meeting form of government voters serve as the legislative body making the big decisions affecting the Town.
Monday’s list of articles has been trimmed down to facilitate a relatively short meeting. A second town meeting is planned for June 11 to take up various zoning amendments. Most of the articles on the 25th relate to the Town and School District budgets. As noted last week, there are three “special” articles – Article 10 proposes zoning by-law amendments to the Limited Commercial District, Article 11 proposes to adopt a local room tax of 3% on short term rentals in town, and Article 12 proposes to change the name of the Selectmen to Select Board. Articles 1-9 mostly pertain to the usual slate of annual budgetary items.
In total, the proposed budgets will require a 2.5% tax hike plus the remainder of the tax hike required to fund the new elementary school which voters have previously approved. Property taxes are expected in to increase 3.2% when these two elements are combined. Town operating expenses are up higher than usual at 3.3% due to recommended staffing increases. Both the Fire and Police Departments have been allotted one additional hire. The proposed budget assumes no change in public safety dispatch for now. The Harbormaster’s budget was also boosted to provide additional hours of on-water patrol given the growth in boater volume. And a small bump in hours for the Conservation Agent and Clerk is included as wetland resource permitting has increased. Otherwise, the Town operating budgets are all at level service.
On the School side, we have the increase in debt service due to the final portion of the financing necessary for the new elementary school plus operating expenses that overall are up 2.9%. Because enrollment from Essex has increased relative to Manchester’s, our increase is lower at 2.1% while Essex’s share increases 4.4%. In past years, the district apportionment formula has meant Manchester had a higher percentage increase – enrollment patterns can cause these percentages to fluctuate over the years. Manchester’s student population is currently declining faster than Essex’s student population. We also have the funding for the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School District. Our enrollment continues to grow and thus our payment to the Essex Tech continues to increase at a fairly high percentage rate.
Article 5 pertains to the Town’s capital budget. Here we have an array of capital purchases (mainly vehicles plus other equipment) construction projects (roads, sidewalks, drainage and pipes) and studies. We continue to make good progress on our capital needs as we spend in excess of $3million a year on capital. This is made possible in part by having retired a good deal of past debt and redirecting the debt payments to actual capital project expenses. Longer term (come the 2030’s) we will face a few large projects that will require new bonds.
This year’s Community Preservation project recommendations totals almost $1.2 million. This is higher than normal as $800,000 is proposed to construct a new multi-purpose practice field at the site of the old burn dump on Pine Street. It has been many years since a new athletic field has been built in town and this proposed field will help alleviate some of the unmet demand for field time.
With everything in place, it is up to residents to have the final say when the votes are taken. Be sure to attend to lend your voice to the process.