Essex Voters Approve FY23 School District Budget, Affordable Housing Trust


Nearly 250 residents showed up early Monday night at the Essex Elementary School to take on a massive, 28-article warrant at the Annual Town Meeting.  

But voters moved quickly, approving the town’s first Affordable Housing Trust, extending a zoning moratorium passed last year on residential-to-commercial property use, approving a series of DPW capital expenses, including significant water and sewer upgrades, gave local restaurants a six-month extension on a COVID-related plastics ban reprieve, and approving the town’s $22.8 million operating budget.

But the biggest “drama” (if you want to call it that) lay with approval of Essex’s $9,077,671 share of the $29.25 million FY2023 Manchester Essex Regional School District budget.  In the end, Article 12 passed easily, 185 to 51.  But before the vote, there was plenty of discussion about rising costs, Essex’s apportionment trends and whether curriculum programs or athletic field repairs should be included in the budget.  

Essex FinCom chair Benjamin Buttrick introduced the Article, signaling a marked change in tone since ATM last year when the Finance Committee announced it would not support the school district budget.  

In the last 12 months, the FinCom and BOS have regularly met with School Committee members and district officials and their productive, renewed relationship showed on Monday.  

Buttrick asked voters to support the budget.  He said that Essex has been hit by a demographic shift between Essex and Manchester that has resulted in Essex’s apportionment increase doubling in the last year (to 4.4% while MBTS’ was 2.3%).  That trend isn’t changing, he said.  

“Essex’s budget apportionment is increasing at about twice the rate as that of Manchester,” said Buttrick. “This is a big gap.”

After negotiations, the district made painful cuts to help Essex avoid an override this year.  Buttrick said regionalization is still a good deal, with Essex’s paying $18,000 per student while Manchester pays $22,000.  That said, there is a correction needed in how Essex manages district budgets longterm.

School Committee Chair Sarah Wolf, who is stepping away from her seat this year, was given a standing ovation Monday.  She said budgeting is “our greatest challenge.”

“This year, to reduce the burden on Essex taxpayers, the district reduced the bottom line by cutting $460,000 from the operational budget and using over half a million dollars from reserve funds. That’s a nearly one-million-dollar reduction in the cost to taxpayers of next year’s proposed budget, on top of the $2.7 million in reductions we have made since 2016 to manage the cost and pace of growth for the towns,” she said.

Article 12 was moved to a vote by secret ballot, which required 49 votes and that narrowly won (52 votes).  Despite the secret ballot, the Article passed, easily.  Then resident Ann Cameron moved to secure the vote by denying later reconsideration of the Article.  Procedurally, this type of question can only be asked once in a town meeting.  The question passed and the approved FY23 school district budget was locked.

Other highlights at Monday’s town meeting included passage of Article 14 seeking to extend the temporary moratorium on business- and industrial-use conversions to January 1, 2024 to give the town’s land use planning consultant more time to find grants needed to complete the work, and then present findings and recommendations to town officials.  

Planning Board Vice Chair Lisa O’Donnell said the board is working to establish a comprehensive zoning bylaw with the help of state grant-funded experts.  With that process finalizing in Spring 2024, an extention of the moratorium was needed.  Voters agreed.

Article 15 to create the town’s first municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which will be overseen by a seven-person board of trustees.  The Article sparked extensive conversation, with proponents saying a Trust  would support the creation and preservation of affordable housing for low- and moderate- income households in town that satisfy state requirements.  They also said it would help address Essex’s “underwater” position with state-required affordable housing stocks—2.7% of Essex’s housing is formally registered as affordable and the state requires 10% to insulate it from an unwanted 40B housing development.

A series of later articles addressed DPW needs, and each passed quickly, including the purchase of a replacement water and sewer meter reading unit and corresponding software (Article 23); engineering expenses for the municipal sewer system (Article 26) as well as to any aspect of the municipal water system and the Essex Water Filtration Plant (Articles 24-25).  Then a roof replacement at Centennial Grove Cottage, the Grove Concession Stand and the associated garage passed.  Essex’s portion of a eight grant-funded replacement firefighter air packs (Article 28) passed.

By 10 p.m. voters had done their work, and went home.


sarah wolf, finance committee, school committee, manchester, fy23, planning board, essex elementary school, affordable housing trust fund, ann cameron, essex water filtration plant, fy2023 manchester essex regional school district, benjamin buttrick, land use planning consultant, centennial grove cottage, frank chopp, economic geography, affordable housing trust, economic inequality