The holiday gave boards in Manchester and Essex a bit of a slowdown before opening 2023 and tackling big issues like budgets, schools, capital initiatives and zoning. But just before the break, at a heated December meeting of the Manchester Select Board, Alexander Westerhoff of 3 Colburn Road was compelled to permanently restrain two of his dogs after an unprovoked September attack on a local couple walking their leashed dog.
The incident occurred as William “Biff” and Tamera Burns walked their 11-year-old Labrador, Hallie, along a route they regularly frequent around Dexter’s Pond.
That September day, Burns said, two unleashed and uncollared Weimaraner dogs ran from Westerhoff’s property and began to violently attack their dog. Mr. Westerhoff, who had run after his dogs, tried to pull them back, but they persisted and did not respond to voice commands.
“It was just a mauling,” said Burns, who shared photographs taken after the attack.
A third Weimaraner owned by Westerhoff was present during the attack but did not directly participate.
Hallie sustained injuries requiring stitches and staples. The couple sought medical attention for injuries to their hands (including stitches to Tamera Burns’ hand), incurring about $7,000 in veterinary and medical costs. There is a civil court action pending related to the attack.
Burns said he and his wife did not advocate putting the dogs down, but, he said, the dogs are clearly dangerous and they “should have no human contact.”
Hayes Demuelle, Manchester’s Animal Control Officer, told the board these dogs have been the subject of several complaints over the years, including a 2020 reported attack of a Manchester resident walking on Coburn Road with his three young daughters. After the 2020 incident, Demuelle said, Westerhoff promised to erect an electronic fence system. That system was only installed the week before last month’s hearing, according to Marc Randazza, Westerhoff’s attorney.
Westerhoff said the attack was regrettable. He said his dogs, Lucien, Velasquez and Luna, typically have a friendly disposition and were protecting their turf. They rarely leave his property, and when they do, they are muzzled and leashed.
That said, Westerhoff asserted that the Burns share responsibility for the incident. He claimed the Burns were trespassing and triggered his dogs’ protection instinct. (MBTS Police Chief Todd Fitzgerald, who was on hand for the hearing, confirmed that the location of the attack was, in fact, on public property and not on Westerhoff’s property). He further stated that Hallie was off her leash, with Tamera Burns carrying it draped over her shoulder. (Mr. Burns vehemently denied this, saying Hallie was harnessed and collared during the attack).
The Select Board found Westerhoff’s assertions of shared responsibility to be dubious, unanimously agreeing that Lucien and Velasquez should be registered as “dangerous.” As a result, the dogs’ photographs and microchip data will be filed with the town, and they must wear color-coded collars to identify them at all times. Further, the dogs must be confined inside Mr. Westerhoff’s home or within a chain-linked enclosure. If they leave the property, they must be muzzled and leashed. Finally, the dogs must undergo professional training on the newly installed electronic fence no later than February 28, with the fence inspected every six months.
FY24 Budgeting Process Kicks Off
The Manchester Finance Committee and Select Board met before the end of the year to formally kick off the FY 2024 budgeting process. At Tuesday’s SB meeting, members provided feedback on the draft, which will now be reviewed and finalized by the FinCom over the next two months.
The working draft of the $40.5 million annual budget allocates $19.3 million for the town’s portion of the regional and tech school district budget, $12.9 million for town operations, $4.6 million for capital expenditures, $1.7 million in enterprise funds for Water & Sewer, and another $2 million for debt payments, capital exclusions, Community Preservation Act projects, and other obligations (like retiree obligations and tax abatement funds).
The budget anticipates approximately $2.03 million in new revenue (about one percent) from increased property tax rolls, local receipts, and enterprise fees. Manchester’s average property tax increased 2.5 percent (to $10.43 per $1,000 in value), slightly lower than the statewide average increase of 2.8 percent.
Capital expenditures are up significantly (36 percent, or approximately $1.2 million) this year, said Federspiel, with the town dipping into reserve funds to address some delayed projects. Salaries are up 2.2 percent. Health insurance premiums are up 8 percent. Pension costs are up 4 percent, but that increase is less than what had been projected last year. Energy costs are “a wild card,” said Federspiel, as are costs related to supply chain issues.
One question prompted by the draft budget centered on what is the right size for public safety, given increasing challenges with meeting expensive state training mandates, changing harbor public safety staff, and shaping staff as Manchester moves to the North Shore regional dispatch service in Middleton.
On Tuesday, SB Member John Round asked about savings that will be realized by moving local dispatch operations to the North Shore Regional 911 Dispatch center in Middleton. Manchester Town Manager Greg Federspiel said it was, and he will work on clarifying and demonstrating those savings.
Another anticipated issue is the Manchester Essex School District budget, facing a funding gap after the ME Regional School Committee received the preliminary $30.144 million FY24 district budget, representing a spending growth of $1.218 million or a growth of 4.21% vs. FY23. In the past, the district has relied on the unsustainable strategy of tapping reserves to meet its operational budget.
Looming future issues are upgrades to needed facilities, like the Department of Public Works facility, a senior center, or a new public safety home. Another big issue is funding the Essex Elementary School, scheduled for replacement in less than ten years.
The Finance Committee will begin reviewing the budget by department starting next week and continuing through the end of February. At the same time, the ME School Committee will finalize its budget. A final municipal budget is expected in March.
2023: About Zoning In Essex
With the clock ticking until the end of the residential-to-commercial zoning change moratorium installed to provide time to update the town’s comprehensive bylaw and the town’s new Downtown Zoning District, 2023’s big theme for the Town of Essex will be zoning. The Essex Planning Board met Wednesday and addressed the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Phase 2 Zoning Bylaw Update, among other items. The issue pulls on a series of essential initiatives being driven by the Board of Selectmen, including its Economic Development Committee, the Strategic Planning Committee, and the newly formed Essex Affordable Housing Trust.
Coming Up ...
The Manchester Planning Board will be moving ahead on its articles for April’s Annual Town Meeting, and it will begin work with the Select Board to consider the “40A” MBTS Overlay Zoning District mandate by the state. It will also finalize its comments on the Board of Health’s proposed drinking water regulation. The board is expected to push back on the regulation’s impact on land use and the absence of voter weigh-in that is typically required to adopt or change rules governing land use and property rights. Also, the year-old Manchester Water Resources Protection Task Force is expected to provide a comprehensive preview to the Select Board of its work and recommendations addressing water consumption strategies, and contamination mitigation, among other areas. That final report is coming mid-year.