It may be a blessing to some and a curse to others, but the number of children per capita in Mansfield is a constant factor in the town's present and future.
"I've never seen so many kids per family in a suburban community in my life," Dr. John Mullin told selectmen Wednesday.
Mullin, Professor of Regional Planning at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has been working on a strategic plan for the town and schools, and came in to update the board on his progress. When complete, the document will include statistics from the present and suggestions for accommodating future growth, focusing on increasing the financial base to support the quality of life in town.
Mullin has researched Mansfield before, and has appeared before the board and the Planning Board to present a fiscal impact study, but this is the first time an attempt has been made by both municipal and school sides have worked together on the same study.
The idea that Mansfield is a young town is not new - at one point in the last ten years state statistics indicated the community had the highest number of children under 14 per capita of any city or town in the state. A current Wikipedia profile of Mansfield states the under-18 population makes up almost a third of town residents.
The unusually high ratio plays out yearly in the budget presentations, because the town has fewer taxpayers than most communities who can support the education of its booming youth population, causing the school department to continuously come up on the short side in per pupil expenditures, something Mullin emphasized.
"Your MCAS scores are highly competitive," he said. "But the cost per pupil, (compared to the scores) is the widest we have seen."
"Mansfield government is frugal - but how can we do things without raising taxes?"
Mullin reeled off a list of concerns, and worries about the possibility of losing some of the big-taxpayer tenants in the Cabot industrial park dominated the discussion.
He noted given the 70/30 tax ratio of schools to non-schools, it is critical for the town to think of ways to raise revenue, or reduce costs, and said the single floor design of buildings in the 1970's-era industrial park creates lower than optimal density in the park.
"What would be the impact of a 20 percent increase in density?" Mullin said. "You have the best site in all of New England - great utilities, beautifully laid-out, and at the intersection of two highways."
Mullin also pointed out the state of the downtown calls for creative approaches, emphasizing the need for attractive and up to date buildings on the main street that consistently meet building codes.
"There is no great town without a great downtown," he said.
Mullin said the greatest opportunity for the future of the downtown lies in the state's "transit oriented development" idea - communities planned around mass transit hubs, like the housing and retail complex planned for the area around Mansfield's train station that stalled for lack of a cohesive funding scheme after several years of community meetings and paid consultants.
He also noted while Mansfield's bond rating remains strong, the town's cash reserves are not where they should be for the size of the community.
Mullin said he is continuing to meet with business and bank representatives, and said the study will culminate in a series of "charettes" - community and staff gatherings where residents and employees will come forth with their own suggestions on ways to expand the financial base of the town while keeping its unique character intact.
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