August 4, 2023
Maintaining Town Infrastructure
By Gregory T. Federspiel
A perennial challenge most every community faces revolves around keeping the needed infrastructure upon which residents depend in good working condition. Without constant upkeep and reinvestment in such items including roads, sidewalks, drainage pipes, water and sewer utilities, municipal buildings, seawalls, and parks, it is very easy to fall behind. Sufficient funding to meet all the needs proves difficult to secure. Add to the mix that many of these elements of a community’s infrastructure are not on most people’s radar and that more immediate operating needs tend to be top of mind, it becomes easy to see why so many communities fall behind in their funding of infrastructure improvements.
If you add up the value of all of the Town’s infrastructure (not including the School District) you are in the range of half a billion dollars. If you take an average life expectancy of 35 years for everything, then this means the Town’s annual reinvestment should be in the $14 million range just to maintain what we have (not accounting for inflation!) Ten years ago the annual capital budget was about $1 million. This past town meeting we approved a capital budget of $4.2 million –good progress but not nearly on pace to maintain everything that residents rely on daily.
This story is not unique to Manchester. Actually, Manchester is probably doing better than most communities. But eventually the deferred capital projects catch up to us. We are pushing to rebuild the Central Street culvert before it fails. The same is true for the Rotunda at Tuck’s Point. Major components of the sewer plant are at the end of their useful life and need replacement. We are only about a third of the way through replacing leaky 100 year old water lines. Besides emergency repairs we have not upgraded most of the seawalls along the harbor and other locations.
Annually department leaders update and add a new year to the Town’s 5-year capital plan. Traditionally this plan has focused on the most immediate needs and, for the last 10 years, has not incorporated big ticket items. Most of the items on the plan are for $1 million or less. We have not had a large bond for non-school projects in many years. Over the past 10 years voters have gradually approved putting more tax revenue toward capital items as well as using “free cash” or the Town’s undesignated fund balance (a town’s saving’s account.) These funds come from being conservative on our estimated receipts, for example, car excise tax, permit fees, etc. and underspending appropriations.
A new facility plan is being developed. Big ticket items on this plan will likely include the need for a new DPW facility, replacing the nearly 60 year old Pleasant Street garage, major upgrades to the sewer plant, PFAS treatment components added to our water plant, new or significantly upgraded public safety facilities, a Senior Center, possible library expansion and investments in sea level rise mitigation measures. Within 5 years the School District is likely to seek funding for a new Essex Elementary School. This partial list alone is in excess of $150 million. Clearly, priorities will have to be set and hard choices made.
There is some good news. The proposed CST project should generate a healthy new stream of tax revenue for the Town without placing a large demand on municipal services. By the early 2030’s the Town’s pension and other retiree obligations should be fully funded freeing up close to $2 million in annual expenses. Grant funds continue to be applied for building on a solid track record of success over
the past few years. All these elements will help ease the burden on taxpayers. However, they will not eliminate the need to raise taxes to pay for the bonds that will be needed for the larger projects.
Both the Finance Committee and the Select Board will be spending considerable time thinking how best to approach the long list of infrastructure needs facing Manchester during the upcoming budget season. Department leaders are being asked to work on their capital planning early so that the discussions can get underway in the fall and not wait until the winter when the crunch is on to finish the operating budget proposals that will be presented at the annual town meeting.
Have thoughts to share on the challenges of maintaining our infrastructure? Both boards and I would benefit from hearing from you.