MANCHESTER — Approximately 220 voters converged on the Manchester Elementary-Middle School gymnasium Saturday, Feb. 27, for the municipal floor portion of Town Meeting, and over the course of a nearly six-hour long meeting approved a $4.971 million town budget. Two other special appropriations calling for a town contribution of $60,000 to a state grant which will help finance an overhaul of Depot Street, one of the town's major commercial thoroughfares, and $75,000 for the construction of new athletic fields at the town's Rec Park also passed, as did another initiative authorizing town officials to work on planning and developing a recreational path along a former railroad bed.
The operating and capital budgets — which were broken out into two separate items this year — represented a total overall increase of about $258,768 from the previous fiscal year's budget, or 5.5 percent. The tax impact of the increase in both the capital and operating budgets on the owner of a $300,000 home will be about $66 above the current year's tax bill, said Select Board Chairman Ivan Beattie, who kicked off the annual Town Meeting with an overview of the budget proposal.
The increase in the budget was driven largely by a jump in expenditures on capital improvement projects of $167,500 from last year, to $554,500, according to the town report. This increase included the repaving of Center Hill Road and Spruce Street, and a portion of Richville Road. The roof at the Town Hall will be replaced and its parking lot repaved, a new truck will be purchased for the town's Department of Public Works and money will be provided for the preservation of historic town records, among other items.
The budget proposal also called for creating a position within the police department for an investigator, which carried a $75,000 price tag. Brad Myerson, a town resident, questioned the need for the additional position, which was proposed in response to a perception of increased illegal drug activity, especially heroin. Myerson made a motion to amend the budget proposal to eliminate that expenditure and position,
Overall, crime was decreasing, and the town did not need an additional police officer, which would represent an ongoing expense into the future, he said.
"There should always be a compelling need for any expense that is appropriated from the taxpayers," he said. "We do not need a 13th police officer."
Police Chief Michael Hall defended the requested $75,000 for the additional position and officer, saying that the times, and the nature of the crimes and cases they were being asked to solve were different from 10-20 years ago.
"It's no longer a small town with geographic limitations on where we're going or what we're doing," he said, recalling a recent fatal heroin overdose of a local youth that he "took personally."
"It was not an easy decision to ask for this increase but when I have good credible people coming to me with information about drug use in this town ... you can't expect the police department to do what we did with the same amount of personnel we had 25 years ago," he said.
Eventually, Myerson's amendment was defeated, 161-25.
Myerson also moved to strike a further $25,000 from the budget for a municipal marketing plan. This initiative aims to promote Manchester, largely through radio advertising, and is separate from a request from the Chamber of Commerce, which is seeking, in a separate warned article from the main budget proposal, $25,000 to assist the organization do more regional advertising and economic development as it transitions to a new entity known as "The Partnership."
Myerson questioned the absence of data and statistics to support the return on the town's investment. However, his amendment to cut the $25,000 from the budget was also defeated, 116-54.
After further discussion, both the operating and capital expenditures budgets were approved on voice votes.
Two other articles, funded from the town's Capital Improvement Contingency Reserve (CIRC) fund led to further extended conversations. One sought approval to tap the CIRC fund for $60,000, largely for a 10 percent local match as part of a $580,000 state grant to overhaul Depot Street, one of the town's main commercial arteries, from the Roundabout to Center Hill Road. This proposal would reconfigure the current three-lane thoroughfare into a roadway with bicycle lanes, more pedestrian crosswalks and pedestrian amenities such as benches, trees and improved street lighting. The middle lane travelway, officials emphasized, would remain for most of the stretch of roadway under the proposal.
After more than an hour of discussion, this article passed on a voice vote.
Residents then also approved an article to spend $75,000 towards the construction of two new playing fields at the town's Rec Park. Two other philanthropic donations total $225,000 — $100,000 from Burr and Burton Academy and $125,000 from Derry Taylor, a resident who also was instrumental in the creation of the academy's new turf field which opened last September. The estimated cost of the project, which actually involves a substantial upgrading of two existing fields already pressed into use due to increased demand for playing fields at the Rec Park, is $400,000, leaving an additional $100,000 needed to be raised. This also passed by a virtually unanimous voice vote.
The last extended discussion of the day was over a proposed recreational path for bicyclists, walkers and runners along a former railroad bed once used by the long-defunct Manchester-Dorset-Granville Railroad, running from the Manchester Elementary Middle School to North Road. No money was involved in this proposal, which was an advisory question only, asking for town support for land acquisition and negotiating rights-of-way. However, the article inspired an extended discussion between several property owners who live along the proposed route, and others who favored the measure as a way to enhance the town's recreational opportunities. After an hour of debate, the measure was approved, 83-34.
Four other specially warned articles – calling for $3,250 for the Retired Senior volunteer Program, $4,000 for the support of the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging, $25,000 for the support of The Partnership and $207,900 for the support of the Manchester Community Library – received only brief discussion at the end of the meeting, which adjourned at 6:45 p.m. These measures will be decided by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 1, when residents head to the polling booths at Town Hall, where they will also be asked to elect new school board and select board members, as well as and other town officials.
Manchester's unusual split town meeting between municipal and school district floor meetings resumes Monday night with the school district portion, which starts at 7 p.m. at the Manchester Elementary-Middle School gymnasium.