Select Board OKs $1.4M in federal pandemic funds for rail trail

The Marblehead Select Board approved investing $2.4 million in federal pandemic relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act into modernizing financial software, expanding the municipal fiber network and making accessibility upgrades along the Marblehead Rail Trail.

Marblehead and Salem jointly acquired the Lead Mills open space in the early 2010s for conservation and recreation purposes. CUTLINE / WILLIAM J. DOWD

The board’s largest allotment, $1.43 million, will replace two aging pedestrian bridges over the Forest River near the Lead Mills Conservation Area to enhance accessibility and safety for all trail users.  

Town Planner Becky Cutting explained during the July 26 Select Board meeting that the current bridge decks “contain metal gratings and lips that can cause bikes to crash and make the crossings difficult to navigate for those using wheelchairs, strollers or mobility devices.”

Cutting emphasized rebuilding the bridges will be “vital to ensure accessibility and enhance the trail experience for all users.”

The project will remove tripping hazards by installing new flat bridge decks made of wood that integrate better with the surrounding nature area. Wider spans, railings and graded approaches will also improve safety and navigation. Linking existing portions of the Marblehead and Salem rail trails was another driving factor highlighted.

“It would not only link the Salem trail to ours, and make it accessible, it would also be the prototype for the width of the new trail and how it would look,” Cutting said.

The Lead Mills Conservation Area bridges will be reconstructed with stabilized surfacing at a consistent 11-foot width meeting regulations for accessible shared-use paths.

Marblehead and Salem jointly acquired the Lead Mills open space in 2014 for conservation and recreation purposes. The site once housed lead mills that produced 6,000 tons annually for products from paint to bullets.

After a 1968 fire, the property sat vacant for decades before the two communities collaborated to repurpose the scenic waterfront area. Upgrading the connecting trails fulfills the vision to maximize public access and enjoyment of the preserved lands.

Software upgrades

The second approved expenditure, totaling $463,803, will replace Marblehead’s outdated financial management software with a new cloud-based enterprise platform.

Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer said the existing software they are using is outdated, inadequate and no longer supported by the company that owns it. They plan to replace it with an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, a cloud-based platform that will manage all financial applications.

“This is a game changer,” said Kezer. “You’re solving so many problems we deal with daily by moving in this direction.”

The new system will include capabilities like accounting, budgeting, payroll, human resources management and more. The total cost for the migration to the new system is $463,803 as a one-time cost, and the annual ongoing cost would be over $200,000 for the town and $200,000 for the schools.

According to Finance Director Aleesha Nunley-Benjamin, this will eliminate reliance on syncing disjointed databases.

“Right now it’s very disjointed using multiple systems we don’t need,” said Nunley-Benjamin. “This new platform will streamline everything into efficient and transparent processes.”

Kezer highlighted benefits including advanced analytics, automation, remote access and resident convenience like online tax payments.

The $463,803 will cover all data migration and implementation costs for the software overhaul.

Fiber-optic connections

Rounding out the allocations is $500,000 to replace and upgrade Marblehead’s municipal fiber optic connections.

Kezer explained the current “daisy chain” layout has no redundancy, meaning any disruption knocks facilities offline.

“Simply moving a box could potentially knock our dispatch center offline,” Kezer said. “It highlights how precarious the system is.”

The funding will establish a high-capacity looped fiber network connecting all municipal buildings, schools, utilities and major intersections.

According to Fire Chief Jason Gilliland, the enhanced connectivity will expand critical broadband capabilities across Marblehead’s public infrastructure.

“I give this my highest recommendation based on public safety priorities,” stated Gilliland.

Kezer credited the seven-person ARPA Working Group for extensively evaluating proposals based on carefully designed criteria. Public input also directly shaped the final projects put forward.

The federal government bars the town from spending ARPA funds on filling regular deficits, hiring new staff or add-ons to existing programs unless those new programs, add-ons or staffers only exist for the life of the ARPA money — which is three years.

While not all proposed uses received funding, Kezer said the process ensured resources were strategically maximized.  

Other expenditures have run the gamut from $200,000 for mental health treatment and support to $27,313 for updating classroom equipment in local schools. Marblehead had $6.1 million in total ARPA funds, with $2.7 million already allocated.

With this latest $2.4 million approval, approximately $968,000 remains available for additional projects until 2026.

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