Jan 27

From the Town Administrator's Desk - January 27, 2023

Posted on January 27, 2023 at 3:10 PM by Tiffany Marletta

The Future of Public Safety
By Gregory T. Federspiel

One of the bigger issues the Town faces as a new budget is developed for the upcoming Fiscal Year (July 1 start date) is determining the right level of staffing for our public safety departments.  The Police, Fire, and Harbor Departments are all confronting new challenges that require a hard look at current staffing and what changes might be needed going forward.

In the Harbor Department, having a single Harbormaster with some part-time seasonal assistance is proving to be inadequate for the increased number of boaters that ply Manchester waters.  The popularity of Sand Dollar Cove at the mouth of the harbor and the increased use of more distant beaches (White, Black and Gray) has grown significantly.  Large weekend crowds require a larger presence of safety boats in order to maintain a safe and orderly environment.  At a minimum, a new seasonal full-time position on the water is needed.

Over at the Fire Department, the loss of an active call force (we use to have upwards of 25 call fire fighters) creates a staffing shortage for back-to-back medical calls or when there is a structure fire.  We currently have 3 full-time fire fighters/paramedics on duty 24/7.  It is best to have two trained staff to roll any rig.  If two are out on an ambulance call the third either stays behind at the station or assists on the first call depending on the severity of the medical emergency.  In any case, there is not a fourth person to provide a second crew.  If a second ambulance call comes in, we rely on mutual aid either from a private ambulance service or Gloucester to respond.  (All of our police officers are trained at the basic EMT level and can provide first aid assistance as well.)  

For an active fire, the protocol requires a minimum of four fire fighters providing for “2 in and 2 out.”   This means that when 2 firefighters enter a burning structure (working in pairs is part of the protocol) there are two outside the building assisting and immediately available should the two inside run into trouble and need to be rescued.  Again, mutual aid is an important part of our emergency response plan, but it takes time for additional crews to respond from another community.   While active structure fires are rare in town, with only three on and no more call fire fighters coming to assist, our crew of three may need to wait for additional crews to arrive before attacking a fire from the inside.

To provide four fire fighters/paramedics on duty 24/7 requires that we hire at least two more fire fighters and up to six more if we are to cover all vacation and sick time to avoid dropping back to three.  

In the Police Department, recent reforms to the rules governing training requirements for officers has led to a swift decline in the number of reserve officers we have. Reserves must now have the same training as a full-time police officer thus reserves are moving to full-time positions. In a few short  months we have lost 10 of our 12 reserve officers and the two remaining are retired and are capped at the number of hours they can work.  We have always relied on our reserves to cover vacant shifts due to regular officer leave time.  While regular officers can work overtime to back fill a vacant shift, burn-out can quickly become a problem if this is done too often.  In addition, with the change of dispatching services to the North Shore Regional Center slated to occur soon, there is the need to provide station coverage.  

To solve both new staffing needs the Police Department is requesting to add two more patrol officers to their ranks.  Enhanced station coverage can be provided most of the time while also providing additional staff for larger emergencies.  

It may be possible to solve all three departmental needs through cross-training and putting resources to a given emergency need.  For the Harbor Department, the School Resource Officer is free during the bulk of the boating season allowing us to dedicate a person to water patrol.  While more discussions are needed, some police officers have indicated they would be willing to be trained as call fire fighters.   If enough do, and we add to the Police department, then a patrol officer could respond to a fire as a fire fighter while still leaving two patrol officers on duty. The Fire Department has concerns about this approach, but it seems worthy of further exploration.

Manchester is a small community.  Compared to many other communities we already have larger than normal Fire Department operations.  However, residents have traditionally been willing to pay for premium services.   Between now and the Annual Town Meeting the Finance Committee and the Select Board will be developing a proposed path forward to meet our new staffing challenges for voters to debate and approve.  Proposals will be discussed at length at the February 9 Finance Committee meeting.    

 

Jan 20

From the Town Administrator's Desk - January 20, 2023

Posted on January 20, 2023 at 9:44 AM by Tiffany Marletta

Getting the Word out – Town Hall Communication Strategies 
By Gregory T. Federspiel

The flow of accurate, timely information is a key element of good governance and critical to robust civic engagement.  This is true for all levels of civic discourse but is most immediately felt here at the local level. Over three years ago the Town created the new part-time position of Communications Coordinator to bolster the flow of information both to and from residents.  Many new strategies have been implemented and new approaches are always being evaluated.

Of course, as fate would have it, three months after hiring Tiffany Marletta as our first Communications Coordinator, COVID hit.  All of Tiffany’s time (and then some as she like many other staff put in many uncompensated hours during the height of the pandemic) was devoted to getting information out about local COVID policies, infection rates and eventually vaccine schedules.  It was a crash course in getting information out on social media and improving the Town’s web site as a conduit of information.

As the COVID crisis eased, Tiffany has been able to implement a broad range of communication strategies.  There are three basic types of information we try to convey.

1) Day to day operations and meeting details (examples include change in trash pickup, parking bans, special events, agendas and minutes, etc.)

2)  Strategic Issues, projects and initiatives (construction project updates, studies, policy debates like dispatch services, upcoming votes at a Town meeting, etc.)

3) Emergency Notifications (storms, water main breaks, public health notices, water bans, etc.)

Nearly a dozen different communication channels are employed.  The Town website contains detailed information on most every aspect of town operations and governance.  Often other communication channels will refer people to the Town web site as the central repository of important information.

The Town’s Code Red reverse 911 call system has over 5000 phone numbers from residents. Messages can be sent within a few minutes to all those who have signed up through our web site to receive them.  The system is used sparingly usually reserved for true emergencies.  (Some praised the use for the fall town meeting while others felt this use was not appropriate.)

Some 2000 residents subscribe to the Town’s email alerts (Subscribe to "MBTS Alerts" here)  While an email alert always accompanies a Code Red call, not all email alerts have a code red element. Again, sign-up through the Town’s web site.   

Newsflashes appear on the homepage of the Town’s website typically announcing an upcoming event, deadline or other important reminder.  About 300 homes subscribe to this.

Social media are utilized as well.  We have 1644 followers on FaceBook, 1219 on Instagram, 368 Twitter followers and 59 who subscribe to the Town’s You Tube page where meeting videos can be accessed. Follow along at @townofmbts. 

A quarterly newsletter is sent along with the property tax bills reaching some 2500 homes.  

The weekly Tide email update is sent to the 2000 Email alert subscribers informing residents of upcoming meetings, project updates, recent COVID statistics and more.  

Special flyers, lawn signs and other direct mailings are occasionally used depending on the given circumstance of a particular topic.  The Annual Report and Annual Town Meeting Warrant are delivered to every home.

Public meetings of elected boards are filmed and can be watched on You Tube if not watched live via 1623 Studies, our local community cable TV station, or via Zoom. Meeting agendas and minutes can be found online for most boards and committees.

And, of course, the Cricket is frequently used for various needs – legal notices, weekly Select Board updates, press releases and my weekly article.    

As extensive as this list is, there seems almost an insatiable appetite for more!  On the one hand it is encouraging that people are eager for information but on the other hand, it seems that some residents are not taking advantage of what is already available.  Regardless, we will keep working to improve the flow of information.   Your suggestions and ideas are always welcome.    

Jan 13

From the Town Administrator's Desk - January 12, 2023

Posted on January 13, 2023 at 10:28 AM by Tiffany Marletta

MBTA Zoning Analysis Getting Underway
By Gregory T. Federspiel

The state legislators enacted a new section to the state’s zoning laws,  MGL Chapter 40, Section 3a, which seeks to establish by-right multi-family housing within a half mile of MBTA transit stations.  The goals of the new law are to promote the use of public transportation, improve air quality and address the need for increased housing.  The challenge for Manchester is to see if we can comply with the new law while maintaining the character of the community.

Municipalities must have in place local zoning that complies with this new law by December 2024 or risk losing the opportunity to secure certain state grants. Thus, Manchester has about two years to decide if we will comply.  At a joint meeting of the Planning Board and Select Board on Monday, January 9, the Boards reviewed a timeline for fully vetting whether we should comply or not.  Both options are on the table and ultimately the voters will need to approve zoning changes at a Town Meeting if we are to comply.  The two boards agreed to the timeline and to create a special task force to oversee the vetting process.

The Task Force will be jointly led by the Planning Board and the Select Board with representation from numerous town boards and committees along with other “at large” members from the community.  The goal is to have the Task Force in place by mid-February.  Staff support will be led by interim Town Planner Betsy Ware.   Additional technical support (mapping, modeling scenarios) will be provided by outside consultants.

The timeline includes a series of steps from data collection on existing development and an analysis of how close are we to compliance currently to projections of the impact of potential new development on the character and capacity of our municipal services.  Also to be undertaken is a study of the impact of foregoing the state grants we would not be able to receive should we decide to not comply.  What alternative funding might be possible to replace these grant funds?  And what savings might we see if we do not have to expand municipal services to accommodate more housing?  

The initial guidelines and requirements that the state promulgated have been modified based on the significant amount of comments communities sent in.  The revised final guidelines provide greater flexibility in how a community can respond to the new law.  For example, for Manchester, our total acreage that must be included in districts that allow multi-family housing by right has been reduced from 50 to 37.  15 acres of the 37 must be within a half mile of the commuter rail station with the remaining allowed outside this area.  The minimum density required for multi-housing units is 15 units per acre.  We currently allow by right the conversion of existing dwellings to multi-housing up to 21 units per acre in our general district and there are examples of even higher density in our village that have been approved by Special Permits.  The state has also clarified that a community can still require a public process for site plan review even for by-right uses.  The site plan review process can require various conditions though it cannot deny a project.  

At this early stage there still remain more questions than answers.  We need to use the coming months to delve into the details, assemble the facts, educate ourselves as to the pros and cons of different options and come to a community wide conclusion.  To do this we will need an in-depth engagement process that provides amble opportunities for residents to come together to learn and discuss.  Public forums will be scheduled through-out the two year process.  A dedicated web page will be a repository for all the accumulated information.

MBTA zoning has already generated a lot of concern.  To be sure, there is strong resistance from being told what to do from edicts from Beacon Hill.  Whether we decide to comply or not, I believe Manchester would be well served by creating a more diverse housing stock.  If we decide that the requirements of the state do not suit our long term needs, I hope that we can craft home-grown solutions that will.  The majority of our housing consists of large, expensive single-family homes.  I believe we need greater diversity of housing to retain a healthy mix of residents.   Let’s use this MBTA zoning mandate as an opportunity to decide how we best go about meeting the stated goals of our Master Plan and Housing Production plan to produce a greater array of housing choices.