FROM THE TOWN ADMINSTRATOR’S DESK
By Gregory T. Federspiel
The development of the FY18 Budget (covering the period of July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018) for both the Town and the School District is well underway. Preliminary budgets have been crafted. The Finance Committee, the Board of Selectmen and the Regional School Committee are busy going over the proposals and will be fine-tuning them between now and early March. Residents are welcome to attend the upcoming meetings to express their views on budget priorities and to help make the choices that are inherent in the budget process. Critical meeting dates will be posted on the Town and School web sites as well as noted in future editions of the Cricket. Between now and March, the Finance Committee is meeting most Wednesday evenings at 7 and the Selectmen have budget discussions at most every one of their regular Monday meetings.
The school budget, public safety expenditures and the Town’s capital budget are the focus of discussions at this stage of the budget development process. These three areas account for the majority of expenses. The School Committee seeks to maintain their current services in the proposed FY18 budget. Their preliminary budget calls for a 3.7% increase to the District’s budget in order to accomplish this. Given recent enrollment patterns whereby Manchester’s student population grows relative to Essex’s student population, the growth in Manchester’s appropriation to the District is higher than the overall District increase by another 0.4-5 percentage points. If this is the case for FY18, the 3.7% increase to the District’s budget, Manchester’s share could increase more than 4%. This is more than the Town can handle without either making cuts to other areas of the Town’s budget or seeking another school override vote. Neither of these options is desirable and efforts will continue to bring the District’s budget within the confines of Proposition 2 ½. The School Committee meets on January 24 at the High School to prepare a revised budget proposal which will be presented at a public hearing on January 31 at the Essex Elementary School.
While the school appropriation is by far the largest single expenditure voters approve, public safety expenditures are the second largest. Voters have consistently approved the budgets necessary for a high level of public safety service. (With our in-house ambulance service, local dispatch operations and relatively low number of call fire fighters, our public safety expenditures are on the high end compared with other similarly sized communities.) An important discussion is underway about staffing, particularly in the Fire Department. Like many other communities, our number of volunteer fire fighters (not strictly volunteer as we pay call firefighters for their time) has dwindled significantly. And while we schedule three career firefighters for every shift, with vacations and sick time, we often have only 2 firefighters at the Fire Station. For an actual fire or back to back ambulance calls, this is not sufficient staffing to respond immediately to an emergency. Can we bolster the ranks of call firefighters? Do we need more career staff to ensure timely and adequate response to emergencies? These questions will be debated as we work to finalize the budget that will be presented to voters at the April Annual Town Meeting.
The third major budget topic revolves around capital. The capital budget has traditionally relied on general funds as well as borrowed funds through bonds. Our multi-year capital plan assumes we will issue new bonds as old bonds are retired, keeping our annual debt payments fairly constant. It is not always possible to align new projects and new bonds to precisely replace old bonds. One way to help keep the total dollars devoted to our capital needs level is to use a combination of debt exclusions and what are called capital exclusions – cash payments that are also outside the limits of Proposition 2 ½. I will have more to say about this as part of a more in-depth article on the proposed capital budget.