December 16, 2022
An Early Look at FY24 Budgets
By Gregory T. Federspiel
Budget season is in full swing. Preliminary budgets both by the School District and the Town are being presented at public meetings this week – 12/14 and 12/15 respectively. While much work by staff has been done to get to this preliminary stage, a more public process takes place between now and the beginning of March when the numbers will be finalized in preparation for the voters’ decisions at the April Annual Town Meeting. Public meetings during January and February afford many opportunities for the public to express their budget preferences.
Even in the best of economic conditions preparing a budget more than 6 months prior to its start is challenging. Add in the current high inflation that we are experiencing and much talk about a possible recession looming makes the process even more uncertain. But demand for municipal services is usually independent of what is happening with the economy. Regardless of economic conditions, roads need plowing, water needs delivering to every household and public safety needs to respond to an emergency to highlight just a few examples.
The Town relies primarily on property taxes for the funds we need to operate. The good news from a town revenue perspective is that real estate in Manchester historically has been fairly immune to downturns in the market. The financial condition of the Town remains strong. However, there are significant challenges related primarily to infrastructure and facility needs over the next 20 years that will stress our fiscal resources. Ideally, we time most of these needs with newly available funding resources (retired debt, new development, fully funded retiree obligations, etc.)
A more immediate issue we need to resolve is how best to staff our public safety operations. Our Fire Department has lost the services of what use to be a robust crew of volunteer/call fire fighters. The decline is one that is occurring in many communities though there are examples of where call departments remain strong. Does the shift to more remote working open an opportunity to resurrect a call force in town? Currently the Fire Station is staffed with 3 Fire Fighter/Paramedics 24/7. An active fire call or simultaneous medical calls requires a minimum of four (the fourth used to be a call fire fighter.) Do we increase staffing to have four on at all times as Chief Cleary recommends?
In the Police Department, dispatch operations will be transferred to the North Shore Regional 911 Center by next summer. Local dispatchers also provided station coverage for the 1 or 2 walk-ins a day that typically come in. Many in town would like to continue staff coverage of the station rather than rely on the remote coverage of the Police Lobby through the regional center. Chief Fitzgerald would prefer to provide station coverage through a couple more Police Officers who can provide a much broader range of services rather than hire civilians for station coverage.
Boat traffic has grown significantly over the past few years and managing on-water traffic requires more personnel. Do we hire a new deputy Harbor Master to provide additional coverage? Could an expanded police force with cross training provide more assistance to the Fire Department and/or the Harbor Department?
A second major area that needs addressing in the FY24 budget is the funding for the School District. In the last few years, the District has relied on reserve funds to pay for operating expenses. While this lowered the amount of funds each town had to contribute, the reserves are now depleted. Thus, additional funding from the towns beyond the normal annual increase is now needed. Some savings are being realized in the District’s budget as enrollment drops and fewer staff are needed but there remains a significant funding gap. A school override vote may be proposed by the District in order to close this gap.
The three issues here – future capital project funding, public safety staffing and School District funding – are the bigger challenges we face as we work to fine-tune the FY24 budget and beyond. The next few months will see much discussion on these topics as the preparation of final budget proposals continues. Your input is welcome at any of the Finance Committee or Select Board meetings.