April 6, 2023
Infrastructure and Funding
By Gregory T. Federspiel
First, a thank you to all residents who attended the Annual Town Meeting and the many staff and volunteers who contributed to a successful meeting. The meeting went smoothly from checking people in to voting on the 20 articles. There were good discussions on many of the articles, various amendments debated and voted on, and a few light-hearted moments as well. The “Soundwaves” were a great addition as people made their way in. I am grateful for the community coming together to conduct the important business of the Town.
A good portion of the evening was spent on capital projects of various types. To be sure, the need for strong capital planning and boosting our funding for capital projects has been a major focus in recent years. The amount of funding devoted to infrastructure needs has grown significantly over in the past 8 years through a combination of gradually increasing the amount of taxation being placed into capital, redirecting old debt payments to pay cash for projects and building up, then using town reserves.
The capital budget that was approved at this year’s ATM drew heavily on the Town’s reserves and decreased the use of taxation. Given the amount of infrastructure improvements needed the Town should return to growing the amount of tax dollars devoted to capital in the coming years. Voters also approved a higher than normal increase to the appropriations to the School District in order to stop relying on the District’s reserve funds for operating expenses. By increasing what traditionally has been very conservative estimated local receipts (excise taxes, permitting fees, etc.) these dollars can be available while at the same limiting the tax increase to 2%, below the typical 2.5%. While a rational choice, this, too, impacts the dollars available for capital. In the coming years when more funds are needed to pay for capital projects, voters will do well to remember the choices that were made.
Studies are underway that will help better quantify what our on-going capital needs are. Current projections for Town capital needs in the next five years, not including the prospect of a new Essex Elementary School, exceed $50 million. Another $15-20 million may be needed in this timeframe to deal with PFAS’s in our drinking water. A master facility plan will be crafted to help us plot the timing of building needs from a new DPW garage to a new Senior Center, from a possible library expansion to a new Public Safety complex and from “hardening” the sewer plant to better flood-proofing Town Hall.
Analysis is also underway on the impacts rising seas and more intense storms on our village core area and what options we can pursue to mitigate the these impacts. Such mitigation efforts will need to be added over time to the capital plan. And engineers are examining options for the Rotunda at Tuck’s Point. Do we raise it up in place or relocate this iconic structure to a safer location on the shoreline? Future public meetings on this question will help decide.
Of course, on-going needs include the usual vehicle replacements, including fire apparatus that have large price tags as well as road and sidewalk projects, sewer and water pipe projects, etc.
All of these capital needs will require significant financial resources. Manchester is certainly not alone in facing a high need to re-invest in the infrastructure that allows a community to function well. We have made good progress in recent years but as noted, we have more to do. Indeed, every community has an on-going need to constantly invest in its facilities. There are revenue sources that will become available to assist. New growth, both residential and commercial, brings in new tax dollars. Past debt will be retired freeing up funds. Our pension and retiree health insurance liabilities will be fully funded by the early 2030’s which will also free up significant funds.
The work will continue to plot a path forward balancing between what is fiscally prudent and what demands need to be met. Of course, voters have the final say as to what projects are funded when.