MBTS ATM: Money, Reserves, And Some Surprises


The central drumbeat to every year’s Annual Town Meeting is, “money, money, money.”  And that was certainly the case this year, when 310 Manchester residents showed up Monday at the Memorial Elementary School to review Manchester’s $40.5 million municipal budget and the 20-article Town Warrant.

In fact, the big non-money tranche of articles were four Planning Board articles seeking to update and change areas of the town bylaw.  But the PB passed over three of them, leaving only one—Article 17, regulating “adult entertainment establishments”—which offered the night’s only source of levity, at about 9:45 p.m.

The PB’s Susan Philbrick introduced the article, and as an ex-US Attorney, she seemed perfectly comfortable explaining that adult entertainment is protected as freedom of expression under the US Constitution, and that Manchester’s current bylaw does not specifically address it.  Philbrick said that means these establishments or related products would be free to set up anywhere, including downtown, without recourse by residents.  Article 17 would mandate that adult entertainment establishments be allowed only in the MBTS Limited Commercial District, with a series of provisions.  The article was adopted 192 to 8.

Levity aside, municipal spending was the meat of the night, specifically Articles 4 and 5, appropriating $15,694,873 and $4,241,300, respectively, for municipal operations, staffing and expenditures.  And there was Manchester’s $16.5 million share of the FY24 regional school district budget (Article 6) and $1.6 million to renovate two aging athletic turf fields, Hyland Field on Lincoln Street and Coach Field on Brook Street, a project shared equally by the Manchester Essex school district and Manchester taxpayers.

Under Article 4, there was general government operations and staffing ($5,258,228), Public Safety ($4,088,618), Public Works ($2,293,627), Parks & Recreation ($424,386), Library ($537,530), among others.  Isabella Bates of Masconomo St. asked why the Board of Health’s salary budget doubled (answer: MBTS hired its first Health Agent, Wendy Hansbury). 

Donna Furse of Blossom Lane asked why Singing Beach staffing costs increased (answer: Parks & Recreation couldn’t secure dependable summer staff at $14/hr.).  Then, Article 4 passed easily (264 to 15).

Article 5’s list of project spending prompted more discussion.  John Keefe of Victoria Rd. moved to shift $150K from sidewalk improvement’s $250K to storm damage repair because he said Black and White Beach on Ocean Street need more funding from storm damage.  Caitlin Eppes of Proctor St., whose elementary school daughter has a rare genetic disease and uses a wheelchair, said stripping the budget for public sidewalks would be unreasonable.  Voters agreed.  

Mary Foley of Pulaski Dr. asked how much of the DPW’s $1.875 million line item for sewer pipe replacement would be used to redirect water pipes from the Lincoln Street Well up Pleasant Street to the town’s water treatment plant at Gravelly Pond.  (It’s too soon to know, she was told, since the project is only in the discussion phase.)

The theme of reserve funds—whether they should be used for a given project or whether other forms of money should be used—entered the debate on several fronts.

First came the Select Board-backed Parks & Recreation line item, $400K for Manchester’s share of replacing Hyland and Coach Fields, which was the subject of an on-the-floor amendment by the MBTS Finance Committee.  Before Monday, the school district had lowered its budget by $300K after final health insurance premium numbers came in March and after negotiations with the teachers’ union concluded.  The Finance Committee voted the give-back should go directly to the taxpayer.  The Select Board disagreed, maintaining the monies should be put into the town’s reserve funds to ensure a better posture for unexpected future expenses.  

The difference translated to a 2.19% tax increase (FinCom) versus a 3.12% increase (SB).  

“What happens in a bad year,” asked Ann Harrison of the Select Board, saying the SB voted to put the excess money into Manchester‘s $3.9 million reserve fund.  

“Current expenses shouldn’t be paid for with reserves,” said FinCom Chair Sarah Mellish.

Voters disagreed with the Select Board.  They passed the FinCom’s amendment, and then easily passed the entire list of projects in Article 5.

Then, when it came to deciding if the school district could float a bond in FY25 to cover the cost of renovating the fields (Article 7) the issue of reserve funds came up again.  This time, the theme was the fields need the renovation, but the school district should pay for it with reserve funds.  

MERSD Director of Finance Avi Urbas said in the face of the large, anticipated project to replace the Essex Elementary School building in four years, the district’s bond counsel, Locke Lord Public Finance Group, has indicated lowering district reserve funds could lower its bond rating, which would cost money when the project goes out for financing.  There is flexibility, he said, to pay for the project with other methods before FY25.  

Anna Lin Mitchell, one of the new members on the ME Regional School Committee, surprised her fellow board members by telling voters Monday she was against paying for the field renovations using debt and was in support of dipping into reserve funds.

In the end, Article 7 passed 211 to 49, securing the two-thirds majority needed to place the project on the election ballot for voters.

Other items passed Monday included raising parking fees from $25 to $50 and all the Community Preservation Committee items were approved, which would see state matching funds from a real estate tax surcharge to fund new trail maps, a new roof for the Tuck’s Point Chowder House and restrooms, a library generator, public signage, picnic tables at Tuck’s Point, sound mitigation at the Summer Street pickleball courts, a new lifeguard chair, and funding to the Manchester Affordable Housing Trust.

Up next is the Essex Special Town Meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 10 to determine if residents will approve the purchase of a nine-acre, $900,000 property at 31 Apple Street as part of its “right of first refusal” now that the property has come under agreement with a local builder.  

Last year, residents purchased a companion land parcel across the street for $1.2 million on a site that abuts an existing town DPW site.  The purchase gave the town future options in case it needs to adapt or expand the DPW site or needs to pull the trigger on other initiatives like affordable housing.  

Some Apple Street residents say adding another town-owned parcel on their street could threaten the quality of its narrow residential neighborhood that is already overused as a cut-through.  The Town has already approved raising a small part of Apple Street to fortify it as an emergency cut-through in case of flooding of the downtown Causeway.  

For its part, town officials say its ROFR (“right of first refusal”), which is the result of the property’s deed restriction, has a time limit and it’s simply putting the decision in the hands of voters.  Apple Street residents have indicated they would rather the property go to the local builder, who they know and who has a long track record in the area.  

The builder has said they plan to restore the home on the 9-acre property, build one other home and possibly a third, and will restrict the remainder of the parcel for conservation/open space.

town meeting, ann harrison, planning board, essex elementary school, manchester essex school district, mbts limited, white beach, caitlin eppes, anna lin mitchell, memorial elementary school, manchester affordable housing trust, board of health, locke lord public finance group, me regional school committee, susan philbrick, sarah mellish, wendy hansbury, fincom chair, avi urbas, mary foley, john keefe, community preservation committee, donna furse, isabella bates, real estate tax surcharge, fy24 regional school district, hyland field, mersd