As sure as the sap starts to run, the magnificent rite of near-spring known as Town Meeting, one of the world's few remaining examples of genuine grass roots democracy, is just around the corner. This year, as always, we encourage all who are able to attend their town meeting — or meetings, as in the case of Manchester with its split municipal and school district meetings — and vote. We continue to be fans of the old-school floor meeting voting, where residents and taxpayers get the benefit of discussion and information about the issues they are being asked to vote on, with the sole exception to that being votes for candidates seeking public office. We realize many voters don't have the time in this day and age to devote an afternoon or an evening to a long and sometimes exhausting town meeting, and floor votes will capture the preferences of only a slice of the electorate. In any event, we urge voters to study their town reports and understand what their municipalities and school districts are proposing to do, to decide if the decisions previously reached by their town officials merit their support.
This year, again as always, there are several interesting questions awaiting voters in all the towns. For space reasons we'll limit our commentary to those offered on Manchester's warning, since there are a bunch this time around that offer significance for and impact upon the town's long-term development.
Let's start with the school district portion of town meeting, which maybe for once could be as interesting, if not more so, than the municipal side. School directors faced a tough task in crafting a budget they thought would pass muster with the voters, dividing 3-2 in favor on the one they settled on. Declining enrollment numbers and Act 46, legislation which encourages school districts to consolidate into larger entities (along with spending cap penalties for those who were, like Manchester's, unable to keep their budgets under a certain level), created a tough situation for the local board. No one likes a rising tax rate, especially when it's going to educate fewer numbers of students. But the school board was between a rock and a hard place on this one, and crafting a budget that balances educational and fiscal imperatives is difficult under the best of circumstances. We would urge voters to support the budget they crafted, but this is the year that the school district's town meeting should be something more than the routine ho-hum wave-through and see a turnout of voters roughly equal to the municipal meeting. Between Act 46, the consolidation initiative, another committee exploring alternatives to an Act 46 merger and the fact that school taxes form the overwhelming majority of local property taxes, the sorry spectacle of 50 or so attendees who show up out of a sense of civic responsibility should be replaced by a far more robust turnout of voters seeking real answers. Better yet, the time is at hand to consider reuniting the two meetings and rolling them back into one. The amount of money involved alone justifies this. and maybe having to chew off both ends at one sitting might make the municipal meeting flow a little faster, and prompt fewer time consuming paper ballots.
Turning to the municpal side, we see several initiatives worthy of local support.
• The Manchester Community Library. The $207,900 being sought by the library to help pay their operating expenses is about as close as we're ever going to get to a no-brainer. The magnificent new library which opened in November 2014 has far exceeded all expectations and has created an amazing new asset for the community, crucial in this day and age when the future of Manchester and its prosperity is closely tied to attracting young families and their children and helping to grow the "knowledge economy" of the 21st century. Even more than that, it has become a community social hub, with public meeting spaces filling a need that many may have — ourselves included — not fully appreciated. In conjunction with other facilities like the rink and the Rec Park, this is the sort of infrastructure development that makes real estate agents — and therefore homeowners — drool, or should. Absolutely, voters should vote Yes on Article 15, the one that calls for this financial support. The town gets that sum back many times over in value and it is the best bargain on the warning.
As always, we include the standard full disclosure notice about The Journal's editor being the spouse of the Library's board president. But we've got to say, folks, even if that were not the case, it wouldn't have changed anything in this endorsement.
• The Partnership. Readers of The Journal are by now well aware of the transition the Manchester and The Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce is planning to make from a traditional business organization to a more modern variant that seeks to amplify its marketing efforts and boost area economic development. If successful, the new organization, which hopes to raise a total of $75,000 from Northshire towns ($25,000 from Manchester) will be a crucial player in helping promote the entire region's economic growth, and we need all the help we can get on that front. This is definitely worth a try. We live in changing economic times. New solutions need to be tried to reverse some worrisome demographic and workforce trends. We urge voters to support his initiative when they go to the polls on Tuesday, March 1.
• Depot Street, Rec Park Fields, and the Bike Path. Yes, yes, and yes. Many have questioned the need for an overhaul of Depot Street, which to many seems to be working just fine as it is. But the vision for an enhanced roadway, with more crosswalks and a bike lane, is a laudable one, and town officials deserve credit for seeing it through. Taking $60,000 from the town's CIRC Fund to leverage much more in state and federal dollars makes sense. Similarly, an investment of $75,000 to make improvements to the playing fields at the Rec Park is another one of those moves, like the library, that will pay for itself many times over in economic activity. The Bike Path vote is an advisory one only, but this idea seems like another attractive enhancement to the town's inventory of attractions, and deserves the town's blessing.
The town's overall budget is a complex document which seems reasonable on its face. We wish we didn't need a new police investigator at the cost of $75,000, but the opioid problem is a serious epidemic that must be confronted. Anytime we're talking about a document that calls for spending $5 million, there will be places some folks might see fit to question. Taken as a whole though, it's a good plan.
But if you have questions, go to the town meeting. It starts at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27 in the MEMS gym, with the school district meeting to follow Monday, Feb. 29 at 7 p.m., also in the gym. Polls open at Town Hall for voting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, March 1, and close at 7 p.m. Make your voice heard. Democracy works best when we all show up.