MANCHESTER >> Two seats on the town's five-member Select Board are in play during this year's Town Meeting elections, but neither position involves a contested race.
A 2-year seat currently held by Lisa Souls, who is not running for re-election, will be sought by Greg Cutler, 54, currently a member of the town's Development Review Board. The other seat is a 3-year post currently held by Steven Nichols, also 54, who is running unopposed for re-election.
Cutler has served for the past four years on the DRB, will step down from that board if elected to the Select Board. He is a professional voice actor and also works as a realtor with Dorset Village Properties. He serves on the Manchester Youth Baseball board and the Dorset Chamber of Commerce board of directors as well.
Growing up in a family where dinner table conversations about politics were frequent sparked his interest in public policy and politics at an early age, he said.
"I think anybody who's interested in doing this... it's because you care and will donate a lot of time and effort to the town," he said, adding that he enjoyed his work on the DRB because "you have your finger on the pulse of what's going on around town."
Cutler said he thought the current select board members had done a good job of balancing the interests of all the various communities within the larger community, from families who had lived in the area for generations to more relative newcomers.
"I think part of being on the Select Board is to make sure everybody is treated fairly," he said. Manchester is different from many other towns around the state, given the makeup of the community and the visitors it attracts, and one of the goals of the select board should be to unite everybody as best as possible, something he termed a "tough balancing act."
"I'd like to unite the different factions within the town under the understanding that we're all in this together," he said.
The big issue facing the town, as elsewhere across the state and beyond, is the future growth of the economy. He's a believer in marketing the town and region to attract more visitors and their spending on goods and services, he said.
"We need to market this area effectively," he said. "I would like to see a tourism board made up of private and public entities that are all focussed on marketing Manchester and the mountain towns that are included in the Partnership."
The Partnership is an entity into which the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce plans to transition into later this year. In addition to running the chamber's existing Welcome Center on Bonnet Street, The Partnership envisions harnessing public and private resources to promote the 18 town region represented by its present membership to visitors and also to encourage a greater level of economic development and investment in local businesses to spur job growth. It will be seeking a $25,000 appropriation from Manchester during Town Meeting, part of an overall total of $75,000 from all the towns involved in the project.
Cutler said it was important to have a way to measure results from such initiatives when public dollars were involved. Included in the town's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is a separate line item for another $25,000, to support an ongoing marketing initiative which has received support at town meeting in the past few years.
Some sort of reporting or accountability should occur, Cutler said, "to gather metrics on how successful the effort is."
When it comes to another special article on this year's town warning dealing with a funding request of $207,900 from the Manchester Community Library — which like the Partnership's request will be up for discussion on the floor but decided by Australian ballot at the polls on Tuesday, March 1 — Cutler said he said he was a big fan of the library.
"Id like to be somebody who can bridge the gap between the town and the way the library operates and look for ways to smooth out any rough edges that are there," he said. "I see it as a massive asset."
The library is one of the community assets, that, along with the Rec Park, shopping, lodging and dining venues, draws visitors here and helps make the town an attractive locale, one which can convert visitors into full-time residents, he said.
Cutler has set up a Facebook page where his views on taxes and the budget, education, economic development, infrastructure and planning and development, are spelled out in more detail.
"I'm not about absolutes," he states in one section of the Facebook page. "Different problems require flexible and informed action ... We are all in this together. We are all taxpayers, businesses owners, parents, employees, etc. We all have a stake in the success of Manchester which is positioned for a very bright future."
Steve Nichols has served on the Select Board continuously since 2006 and is looking to add another three years onto that tenure.
He is the deli manager/assistant manager at Maplefields, a convenience store and gas station in Manchester, and a graduate of Burr and Burton Seminary.
Nichols' primary focus and concern is the tax rate and keeping that at a level that is within reason for all the town's residents, he said.
"It's a tough job — you have to really work at keeping the tax rate down," he said. "I sit behind that table and I'm a taxpayer — I'm not a select board member and that's really the way I look at it."
Striking the balance between a reasonable tax rate and enabling the town to move forward on infrastructure improvements as well as basic maintenance is a sometimes difficult balancing act, he said.
"We don't want the town to become stagnant; we have to make some improvements and we know that," he said,
Funding the Manchester Community Library, which opened its doors in November, 2014, and its predecessor, the Mark Skinner Library, in part through an annual municipal appropriation, is one area that has been difficult for him to find common ground with the library's officials over the years. Nichols would like to see the library rely less on public money.
"I wasn't in favor of the new library — I think it's an expense that we really didn't need to incur," he said. "I think they're offering a great program and I think they've come a long way. I like the library; it's good for the kids and the community, but we have to take other priorities first."
Nichols said the library should rely more on its approximately $2.2 million endowment fund and use more of the interest income to reduce the amount requested in public money.
However, Stephen Drunsic, the treasurer of the library's board of trustees, said the board is already doing just that.
"We already fully draw on our entire interest earnings each year," he stated in an emailed message. "While one could argue that we should make greater draws on our endowment, this would only serve to erode our principal, and any erosion of our principal further exacerbates future interest earnings shortfalls. Preserving the principal in our endowment ensures that we have a reliable stream of income for many years to come, thus reducing our reliance on public appropriations to close budget gaps."
Budgetary pressures continue to press the town's bottom line, and the select board this year adopted a budget that will boost the municipal tax rate nearly 3 cents, to about 24.5 cents per $100 of assessed property value, an increase of more than 13.6 percent from the previous budget approved last year, before special appropriations are added in. That would still in all likelihood leave the town with one of the lower municipal tax rates in the state, according to the town's website. For fiscal year 2014, the town had the 19th lowest municipal tax rate in the state, at just under 22 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Among municipalities with more than 3,000 residents, Manchester ranked third behind Rutland Town and Charlotte, according to a post currently on the town's website from 2014. Last year, the tax rate was 21.61 cents per $100 of assessed value, so this year's budget would mark a sharp uptick from that.
Some paving projects for town roads couldn't wait any longer, while a few others were deferred again. Another point of pressure on the town's finances will come from the need to spend an additional $75,000 on a new police investigator position, in large part due to a perception of increased drug activity and criminal behavior associated with that, Nichols, who supported creating the position, said.
"We really have a serious drug problem here in town, whether people are willing to accept that or not," he said, adding that he supported also creating a drug task force committee and perhaps a neighborhood watch group. Despite the paving and police enhancements, he said the select board was able to find about $90,000 in other savings.
He did not sound supportive of the Chamber of Commerce/Partnership's request for $25,000 for marketing and economic development in a phone interview earlier this week, however.
He termed the request for $25,000 "ludicrous," and questioned how it would be regulated and how the town would determine it had gotten a good return on its investment, adding that the chamber of commerce, or Partnership, needed to do more of its own fundraising to finance its ideas and operations.
He was supportive of the $25,000 built into the town's budget for its ongoing marketing initiative, and pointed to a rise in the rooms and meal tax revenues as an indication that this marketing program was worthwhile.
"They do have a plan in place which I am pleased with," he said of the marketing plan financed in the budget. "I think the Chamber/Partnership is very confusing, even if they do have a plan in place."
Berta Maginniss, the chamber's executive director, when asked for a comment, said the rooms and meals tax revenues were only one piece among several that needed to be assessed when evaluating the effectiveness of a marketing initiative, and that it took more than one marketing effort to promote an area.
The public money involved in the Partnership's financing, which, its officials hope, will encourage and boost donations and contributions from private sector businesses and leverage the impact of the public money, is mainly going for economic development along the lines set forth in the Northshire Economic Development Strategy, or NEDS, which was set for an unveiling Thursday, Feb. 11, at Long Trail School in Dorset. That strategy, which seeks to work with clusters of businesses which are already in place and draw in or help existing businesses expand and is sometimes referred to as "economic gardening" — as opposed to "economic hunting," — or luring businesses from elsewhere to locate here through tax breaks or other incentives, would make a difference in the economic vitality of the region, "and now the investment has to be made to take that further," she said.
The Partnership will be a catalyst, or umbrella, which will work with other municipalities, private businesses and non-profit organizations, she said.
"There may be a business that fits perfectly in Pawlet, not in Manchester, but it benefits the whole region," Maginniss said. "We need to know where those pockets are."
Nichols said economic development should focus on developing businesses which would spawn higher paying jobs than is typically the case with retail or lodging enterprises, Higher paying jobs would also help residents to afford to purchase homes and to live in Manchester, he said.
"I don't want to see Manchester become stagnant, but we just have to be careful," he said. "People are making $11-12 per hour and trying to afford their taxes in town and (at town meeting) everybody just raises their hand and saying 'yes,' and not even looking at the budget and these articles — it just baffles me."
Nichols also added that he wanted to encourage everyone to get to the polls and cast a ballot. Manchester's town meeting will be held Saturday, Feb. 27, starting at 1 p.m. in the gymnasium at Manchester Elementary Middle School. Voting for items not decided on the floor of town meeting, such as the election of public officials and special articles, will take place on Tuesday, March 1, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Town Hall.