New Marblehead Select Board to prioritize planning, transparency

Erin Noonan shares a moment with fellow Select Board member Moses Grader during the swearing in ceremony on June 21. Noonan has assumed the role of chair for the 2023-24 term. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER.  

Marblehead Select Board has a new chair in Erin Noonan, and her first post-election meeting was something of a baptism by fire.

The Select Board faced pressure from angry parents and school officials to permit public comment after they learned the district might be on the hook for an additional $350,000 in cuts in a district already girding for layoffs and the elimination of programs after a proposed $2.5 million general override of Proposition 2 1/2 failed at the polls a day earlier.

That storm has passed — at a meeting of the Finance Committee June 22, Marblehead Finance Director Aleesha Nunley-Benjamin said that the school district would have access to $350,000 in town energy reserve funds for fiscal year 2024 — the newly reconstituted Select Board, with former member Bret Murray unseating 18-year member Jackie Belf-Becker, is now charged with helping the town side of government through the belt-tightening process.

“What we presented at the Town Meeting was a balanced — but reduced — budget,” said Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer after the votes had been counted on election night. “That’s what we are going to have to live with.”

The property tax increase was proposed to reinstate services cut in the $112.5 million fiscal year 2024 budget. In addition to the school cuts, several public safety and public works positions will be left vacant, too. 

“We’ll be OK for this year,” Fire Chief Jason Gilliland said after the results came in. “We have open positions that we’ll have to fill with overtime.”

Gilliland predicted that an override may be needed next year.

Police Chief Dennis King added, “We run with what we get. And we provide quality service. We’re not in a position where we’re providing less service. We will continue to be effective and efficient.”

Beyond withstanding the immediate impact of the override’s failure, Noonan noted the need for long-range planning.

“The top priority of our work and focus is going to be on supporting Thatcher and the finance team and creating a multi-year financial plan to start putting out some forecasting and models,” Noonan said. “We need to explore every possible avenue for new revenue that we can bring in and create a plan that addresses our structural deficit, which is acceptable to residents.”

Noonan noted, “We have funded through the ARPA fund a two-year position that is going to address some economic revitalization of our business district.”

Murray’s campaign emphasized addressing the town’s financial woes, creating a strategic plan and increasing transparency. He views the election results as an endorsement of these priorities.

“I think tonight’s results say Marblehead wants to try something different,” said Murray after polls closed. “The town wants to go in a different direction.”

With Murray’s election, voters gave a majority to a new cohort that has called for more discussion, transparency and deliberation during the five-member board’s public meetings. “Voters came out for progress, for more deliberation around the big issues we face,” said Noonan. “Obviously, the biggest issue is our finances.”

Noonan said the Select Board’s docket is brimming with tasks for the new term, from economic development to hiring a human resources director and a sustainability coordinator.

“We’re about halfway through our coastal resiliency grant process … we’ll see those [projects] through completion and continue to pursue our goal for net-zero planning,” Noonan said. ‘The work of the Marblehead Green Committee now has its roadmap, so we’ve completed all the planning. Now, it’s time to put those plans into action.”

Leigh Blander, the Marblehead Current’s associate editor, contributed reporting. 

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