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Winchester enters election season amid budget pressures, infrastructure needs

Winchester is gearing up for its annual election to be held Tuesday, March 26. FILE PHOTO

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Winchester voters head to the polls on Tuesday, March 26 to elect leaders who will inherit a local government facing rising costs, a structural budget deficit and substantial infrastructure needs across town.

The Select Board race has drawn robust interest, with four candidates competing for two open three-year terms.

Select Board candidates include the following: Incumbent Michael Bettencourt, William McGonigle, Vincent Lawrence Dixon and Dorothy R. Simboli.

The election comes as the town faces a $1.89 million structural deficit in its $156 million fiscal 2025 budget.

The growth in revenues does not keep pace with the growth in costs necessary to maintain a level service budget,” Town Manager Beth Rudolph wrote in her fiscal 2025 financial plan.

She writes the structural-deficit gap is expected to widen over the next three years if ignored.

To cover the deficit in next year’s budget proposal, the town is relying heavily on $1.89 million from its free cash reserves — an approach the Select Board adopted in a 2010 policy as a last resort given limited new growth and Proposition 2 1/2 caps.

While the town’s finances and AAA bond rating — which keep borrowing costs down — remain strong for now, new leadership will need to make some decisions on budgets, services and infrastructure priorities over the next few years to maintain that standing.

The town also faces over $90 million in unfunded capital projects over the next five years, from building repairs to bridge reconstructions, far exceeding what its capital funds can support, according to a Capital Planning Committee correspondence among officials.

The CPC has completed its evaluation of capital project requests submitted by Town Departments for the next 5 years and the outlook is disturbing,” write CPC members. “For years, this committee has been warning town meetings and assorted boards and committees of the mountain of unfunded capital projects that were being deferred or that were fast approaching.”

The committee adds, This year, it is no longer possible to look past that reality.”

School Committee race

According to a Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Frank Hackett’s correspondence in the financial plan, the next School Committee — with two open seats in the March 26 election — will inherit a complex budget situation driven largely by contractual salary obligations and rising out-of-district special education costs.

The Fiscal Year 2025 budget, set at $66.7 million, institutes the final year of a teacher contract that includes 4% annual raises plus additional pay for top credentials. While special education placements have leveled off, steep state-approved tuition increases of 14% and 4.7% have raised costs significantly.

With an improving but still depressed enrollment outlook and a teaching staff stretched thin by the pandemic, the next School Committee will require creative solutions to address rising costs not fully accounted for in the latest budget. Key decisions around strategic investments,  contract negotiations and infrastructure repairs await the incoming committee.

School Committee candidates include the following: Incumbent Thomas Hopcroft, Jon Swan, Jeffrey Duncan, My Linh Truong, Carey Sue Barney and Timothy Matthews.

Winchester Housing Authority race

The Housing Authority has one, four-year seat on the ballot this cycle.  The upcoming election for the Housing Authority seat is crucial, coming at a time when an updated Housing Production Plan has highlighted the urgent need for more affordable housing.

New commissioners will have significant roles in addressing these needs by overseeing the executive director, approving critical policies and ensuring financial stability for the Winchester Housing Authority (WHA).

They will be tasked with overseeing the construction, financing, maintenance and rental policies for the WHA's housing units, including 112 Chapter 667 units for seniors and citizens with disabilities, nine Chapter 705 family units and four WHA-owned units.

Housing Authority candidates for a one-seat, four-year term: James Harris and Thomas Mourier.

Unopposed candidates 

Other candidates running unopposed in the town election include:

Moderator (one-year term): Incumbent Heather R. Von Mering

Assessors Board (one seat, three-year term): Incumbent Paul Manganaro

Board of Health (one seat, three-year term): Shannon Scott-Vernaglia

Planning Board (two seats, three-year terms): Brian Vernaglia, John B. Cortizas

Trustee Library (one seat, three-year term): James Remmes Jr.

Key dates for town election 

Here are the key dates leading up to the town election:

March 16, 2024 — Voter Registration Deadline: Residents must be registered by this date to vote in the town election.

March 19, 2024, 5 p.m. — Vote by Mail Application Deadline: Applications for mail-in voting must be received by this time.

March 18, 2024 — Campaign Finance Reports Due: Candidates with a candidate committee must submit their campaign finance reports.

March 25, 2024, noon — Absentee Ballot Application Deadline: Applications for absentee ballots must be submitted by this deadline.

March 26, 2024 — ANNUAL TOWN ELECTION: Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

April 26, 2024 — Post-Election Campaign Finance Reports Due: Candidates must submit their final campaign finance reports, ensuring transparency.

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