By James Niedzinski
---- — MANCHESTER — The 369 residents who showed up for the first night of Manchester’s Town Meeting not only approved a series of town budget items for the new fiscal year, they also set the stage for a debt exclusion May Election Day override to Proposition 21/2 to fund the acquisition of remaining Pine Street property, perhaps by eminent domain, and the environmental cleanup of the site.
Residents made their way through the first 16 of 29 articles Monday night, with bylaw proposals designed to ban single-use plastic bags and give dog owners extended time to walk their dogs on town beaches among the articles pushed to a continuation of the meeting Tuesday night. The meeting was ongoing as of press time.
Monday, residents backed Article 8, which allows the town to put the ballot question regarding a 21/2 override before voters, with an eye toward the cleanup of six contaminated sites, totaling about 5.27 acres along Pine Street and Rockwood Heights Road.
Voters will be facing a debt exclusion override referendum in the annual town election, slated for May 21.
The cost associated with the cleaning and capping of the contaminated site stands at $1,741,000, and town officials said Tuesday, prior to the second night of the meeting, it remains unclear on how long the town will need to carry the debt or its direct impact on the taxpayers.
”I’m guessing 20 to 25 (years),” Interim Town Administrator Wayne Melville said of the possible loan.
Melville noted that, under the debt exclusion, the override tax increase during the loan, but would revert downward afterward. Melville said the alternative — excavating, cleaning and returning the entire site — could have cost twice as much.
During the annual town election in 2009, voters passed ballot questions that allowed the town to buy and clean three properties that were on the burn dump itself for $2.4 million. That measure was also backed by a debt exclusion Proposition 21/2 override.
There are also three properties abutting the former burn dump that have not been cleaned, the town must meet mandate by the state Department on Environmental Protection to clean and cap the entire site by April 2014.
Voters also unanimously passed article 9, which allows the town to purchase, gift, or excise eminent domain on a property at 162 Pine St., one of the abutting properties owned by Ana Costa. Officials said a notice of intent needs to signed, as well as other documents, by the homeowner so the town can have approval and properly clean the site.
Costa has not signed off on a notice of intent, and the town is engaged in mediation about the land, officials have said.
Melville said Tuesday the cost of accessing Costa’s land for the one time easement to clean the site is about $23,000, the two other abutting property owners have previously signed the notice of intent. Costa’s attorney, Shephard Johnson, did not return calls placed by the Times on Tuesday.
Voters approved the first few articles with ease; accepting the Annual Town Report, approving the Board of Selectmen, Town Moderator and Assessors with salaries of $0, and backing the town’s allocation of $80,335 to the North Shore Regional Vocational School District.
There was some deliberation of the town’s $12,608,440 operating budget, which was ultimately passed as proposed.
Camilla Blair of Burnham Lane asked questions about the cost of legal fees and some salaries for town positions.
”How many lawsuits are facing the town?” she said.
Melville said that at the start of 2012, the town was engaged in eight active lawsuits, some of which have been resolved.
One involved a weapons and gun license dispute with Police Chief Glenn McKiel, others revolved around beach access, personnel matters and lawsuits involving the Conservation Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals and legal mediation around the Pine Street property, Melville said.
Voters also approved most of the capital expenses for the next fiscal year, which totaled $832,461, funded through taxation and various sales and fees paid to the town.
Article 6, which dealt with the town’s assessment to the Manchester Essex Regional School District, also drew questions.
William Shipman, an Overledge Road resident, offered an amendment to the article, urging that $10,906,880 be allocated to the district, the same amount last year, in order to make the district spend less and be more transparent.
Shipman said taxpayers owe the school district approximately $22 million in unfunded liabilities and other Post Employment Benefit (OPEB) funds.
”The schools are freed from our vote on this,” he said of the budget.
James Starkey, a Tucks Point Road resident, said voters agreed to the idea of a regional school district, allowing the School Committee to tackle issues such as contract negotiation and unfunded liabilities, and voters retain the power to vote any candidates on or off the regional school committee.
”It is not correct to say this is not done democratically,” he said.
Voters also approved $5,000 to a police detail fund and the creation of a firefighter detail account, with another $5,000 to be allocated.
A move for special legislation was also passed at the meeting. Article 12 would allow the Board of Assessors to take on members that live outside of Manchester, should the legislation pass.
In addition, $215,000 will be deposited into the town’s OPEB trust fund.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.