Create an Account - Increase your productivity, customize your experience, and engage in information you care about.
Posted on January 16, 2020 at 12:44 PM by Tiffany Marletta
New Option for a Center for Seniors and More
By Gregory T. Federspiel
An exciting new possibility has been presented to the Town. Knowing of the Town’s desire to create a center for our growing population of older residents, the Cornerstone Church approached Town officials about obtaining an option to purchase their current home at 20 School Street once the Church builds a new church on lands it has purchased at the corner of School and Mill Streets.
While the Selectmen can enter into the option, ultimately voters will need to make the final decision whether or not to purchase the property. Such a vote will likely be put before residents at this spring’s Annual Town Meeting. In the meantime, work has advanced to determine the feasibility of converting the historic structure into a full-service senior center and multi-purpose community building.
The building is impressively solid with massive timbers throughout. A preliminary inspection of the building found no structural concerns. With roughly 7500 square feet of floor space, the building provides amble room for a wide range of uses. An initial renovation plan, developed for the Town by local architect John Harding, shows a welcoming reception area and reading/computer use space surrounded by offices and multi-purpose rooms on the first floor, including exercise rooms and smaller meeting spaces. The expansive second floor would be home to a commercial kitchen, a very large multi-function room (enough room for some 350 people seated auditorium style or some 250 people at tables.) The space could be split in half to provide two large function rooms when needed.
The Church has offered to sell the building to the Town for $1.2 million, the appraised value. If voters approve the purchase, a fundraising effort would be undertaken with the goal of raising the funds needed for the renovation of the building. Final estimates are being developed on the cost of converting the building to public uses, including an elevator and a required sprinkler system, and should be known by the end of this month. Early indications are that there are interested in individuals willing to make significant donations to make the new center a reality.
Council on Aging Director Nancy Hammond has identified a wide array of services and programming that could be provided to our older residents from such a new center. From congregate meals to numerous exercise classes, from lecture series to bridge games, and from flu shots to other health services, the list is long. The Town’s population of residents over 60 is expected to grow rapidly and is expected to be close to 40% in the not too distant future. Additionally, the various meeting rooms could be available for many different groups, both private and public.
The Selectmen reviewed the plans for the building at their meeting on January 6 and hope to sign off on the proposed option and proposed purchase and sales agreement at their meeting on January 21.
Posted on January 9, 2020 at 1:40 PM by Tiffany Marletta
A New Year, A New Decade
By Gregory T. Federspiel
A new year – indeed a new decade: what lies ahead for our community? Before we get too swept up in the day to day work of running the Town it is worth reflecting on what the priorities are. How have we advanced our collective needs recently and what are we likely to focus on in the coming months and years?
Taking stock of our needs and prioritizing necessary capital projects has been a major emphasis over the last few years. After extensive community input, the Planning Board adopted a new master plan. Three key community priorities emerged: preserving our important natural resources, diversifying our housing stock, and growing our commercial tax base by allowing well-planned development in the areas north of both interchanges off Route 128.
Advancing these three priorities will receive considerable attention in the months ahead. Efforts will continue to 1) conserve a major portion of the Town's "western woods", a 500 acre area of undeveloped lands, 2) expand housing options in collaboration with the Housing Authority and through revised zoning regulations, and 3) pursue more flexible development guidelines while still protecting natural resource attributes in the Limited Commercial District that lies to the north of Route 128.
After years of lagging behind, our capital improvement plan has expanded significantly. We are making major improvements in our basic infrastructure as we replace water and sewer pipes, repave roads and sidewalks and invest in our drainage systems which are ill-prepared for the larger storms we are beginning to experience. We plan on continuing these more aggressive capital investments in the years ahead. One new study about to get underway is to explore the feasibility of connecting our sewer system to Beverly's system and thus avoiding the need to repair, fortify and maintain our own sewer treatment plant.
Meeting the needs of our fastest growing cohort, residents over 60, requires us to rethink the role of our Council on Aging and the spaces we provide for a host of needed programming for our older residents. Voters will likely be requested to approve the purchase of the Cornerstone Church at 20 School Street come the spring Town Meeting. We anticipate raising the funds to renovate the interior through private donations. The building will be able to host an expanded array of programming for young and old alike and has the potential to become an important center of community activity.
A possible new Harbormaster Office and Maritime Center either in Reed or Masconomo Parks along the harbor shoreline will be debated over the next few months as well. The harbor is one of the Town's largest generators of jobs and revenues - improving it to ensure its viability is important to the Town's future.
While our finances remain relatively strong, a possible weakening economy and the continuing challenges the school district faces maintaining their current services within the revenue generation limitations of Proposition 2 1/2 will stress our fiscal resources. Similarly, as the new decade unfolds, the cost of adapting to the new realities presented by rising seas and larger storms will present a new host of challenges for us. A larger commercial tax base, focused on lands to the north of Route 128, may provide the needed new revenues while relieving homeowners of some of the tax burden.
As always, there are plenty of topics that need our attention as we start a new year. With thoughtful input from residents, we will address these challenges and more in the months ahead.
Posted on December 6, 2019 at 2:42 PM by Tiffany Marletta
Preliminary Budget Presentations
By Gregory T. Federspiel
With the early snowfall on the ground, next July seems a very distant future! However, work is well underway on the budgets for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. Preliminary budget proposals for the new fiscal year will be presented next week. On Monday, the Town's FY2021 draft budget will be presented at Town Hall at 7:00 PM and, on Wednesday, the School District's preliminary budget will be presented at the Essex Elementary School starting at 6:30 PM.
The draft Town Budget assumes that residents want us to continue the current level of services. With just a couple of exceptions, most department operations remain as they are now with the same level of staff and flat operating expenses. It also assumes that residents are willing to pay a bit more for these services. Higher costs are due to modest pay increases for staff, increased pension costs as the county retirement system catches up to become fully funded, higher liability and workers compensation insurance costs, increased technology costs (cyber security is a pressing issue), a 22% increase in garbage disposal costs due to market dynamics and more funds for public tree maintenance.
Regarding staffing, the preliminary budget proposes to restore a half time clerk position in the Selectmen's office as well as restoring one of the laborer positions in the Highway division. One position each in the water and sewer divisions is also proposed. These new DPW slots are being sought as the department is facing a number of retirements in the next few years. We want to ensure a smooth transition as we transfer the knowledge of our long serving staff to the next generation of DPW workers. The increased staffing will allow the department to complete more tasks internally without the use of outside contractors as often, including the option of running the water plant ourselves to save money. Even with these three additional staff, the new number of staff is still lower than the number prior to reductions made during the last recession.
To help off-set these new hires we are not filling a vacant part-time and one full time position in other departments.
The details of the new School District budget will be presented next Wednesday. The Town budget assumes that our share of the District budget will grow 3.25 percent, a bit higher than this year but closer to the average increase in recent years. The School Committee is responsible for crafting the annual District budget.
To pay for the new budget, a 2.5% hike in property taxes is proposed along with the additional taxes derived from new construction. This year we saw lower than expected new growth thus we are lowering our expectations for next year. Indeed, there are signs of a slow-down in the economy which we will want to be mindful of as we project ahead for the next few years. We have some capacity in our local receipts (various fees, the largest being the vehicle excise) which we traditionally have been very conservative in estimating. We plan on raising these estimates to make up for the lower amount of new construction and to avoid new taxation up to for the full amount voters approved for servicing the debt on the new elementary school bonds. (This will be the second year we will be able to reduce the full tax impact of the new school for residents. We hope to be able to do this for a few more years when lower debt service on the middle high school begins allowing us to continue this reduced impact.)
As always, budgets are about choices and as we begin the review of the preliminary budgets in earnest between now and the April Annual Town Meeting, the numerous choices represented in the proposed numbers will be debated. Your input is most appreciated. Can’t make the meetings? You can find the preliminary budgets on the Town and School web sites and can send in comments.