HARWICH — While the town is facing a larger than normal number of ballot questions seeking funding outside the limits of Proposition 2½, town officials continue to paint a good picture of the financial state of the community.
The town's voter information committee brought several town officials and representatives of the two school districts together last week to gather insight into the financial state of the community as voters prepare for the annual town meeting in two weeks.
“This year the challenge was to have a limited number of ballot questions and that's been exceptionally challenging,” Town Administrator Christopher Clark said in that gathering. He pointed out they were able to reduce the number of funding questions from nine to seven on the ballot.
Clark called this year's request a “stable services budget,” adding they have been able to sustain that with a number of large issues facing the town. That budget provides for no new staff, he said. Revenues have been strong, Clark added, but he also cited major drains from health insurance, varying from 8.5 to 12 percent depending on differing offerings. Retirement assessments also have a major impact not only in general government but also in both school districts.
Among the big issues facing voters on the ballot, Clark cited the initial requests for phase two of the town's comprehensive wastewater management plan, which seeks a $9,035,000 debt exclusion to cover a capacity purchase fee to use the Chatham Water Pollution Control Facility for treatment; to design sewers for the Pleasant Bay watershed; and design an interconnection system with Chatham. The second debt exclusion question seeks $2 million to fund the Cold Brook nitrogen attenuation project.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Clark said.
The town administrator also cited the $3 million debt exclusion question for the landside project at Saquatucket Harbor. He cited the major work in the three Nantucket Sound side harbors over the past few years, pointing out little work had been done there for a long period of time.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill praised Clark's efforts in putting this year's budget together; the chairman said the board gave him a budget message and he stuck to it. MacAskill said wastewater is the big one and it's critical to the natural resources. He also pointed out construction funding for phase two would be sought in FY19.
With the town facing the need to borrow for some of these project, VIP member Joanne RYS asked about the town's interest rate. Clark cited his efforts to improve the town's bond rating to AAA, and Clark said he thinks the bond rating companies will look favorable up the request.
The town had fairly low reserves for a few years, but that has changed, Clark said, citing major improvements in FY16 and FY17. “We're in good fiscal condition,” he said. MacAskill pointed out they put $1.7 million in the town's stabilization fund last year, though he said they would not be able to put much in this year.
Finance Committee Chairman Jack Brown thanked Clark for working with the finance committee on the budget. Brown did say there were some important requests that are going unfunded this year and he cited requests for additional public safety staffing. Brown also emphasized the need to protect the town's reserve account adding “once you break the piggy bank it gets spent everywhere.”
Clark also stressed the need to look at financial planning holistically. He cited the debt for the Monomoy Regional High School decreasing by $1 million, adding those funds should be directed to another capital need. He said MRSD will not have another major capital project for another 15 years.
But there are other school issues on the horizon. Cape Cod Regional Technical High School Superintendent Robert Sanborn said the elephant in the room is the new technical high school that will be sought. The school serves 12 towns on the Cape and projections are it will cost $143 million. Sanborn said they are in the Massachusetts School Building Authority program and upward of 35 to 40 percent of building costs could be reimbursed through that program.
There will be a district-wide vote on the school project on Oct. 24, and Sanborn said it will take a majority vote, not based by town, but by votes cast across the 12 towns to move forward with the project. The superintendent invited people to contact school officials to schedule a tour of the school.
“You're building two schools here. You're teaching academics and the trades, it's a comprehensive school,” Harwich's school committee representative to Cape Tech, Lee Culver said of that project.
Speaking to Cape Tech's budget request for FY18, Sanborn cited a 1.89 percent increase and he emphasized reductions by 10 percent were on capital projects, given the potential for a new school. For Harwich, which has 77 students attending school there, the town's contribution is 12 percent of the budget, or $1,487,362.
MRSD Superintendent Scott Carpenter praised how that district is coming together, citing accomplishments in academics, sports and the arts. He said athletes had been heading off to other schools, but with two league championships this year, they are staying.
He cited improvements in academics and new curriculum such as Singapore Math which provides a lot of development for teachers and a means of measuring student progress throughout the school year. He also cited the Global Studies Program, used by many private schools, which is being instituted there. He also praised the addition of Chromebook for Google Classroom being brought into the fifth grade.
Carpenter said the total budget increase for Harwich is 3.03 percent this year. MRSC Chairman Brian Widegren said 92 percent of the school budget is based on contractual obligations, which they have no control over. Brown said the finance committee voted eight to one to strongly support the MRSD budget, though there was much discussion about a separate capital request for $224,114 for maintenance and technology. Brown commended Clark and Carpenter for working together to reduce budget request this year.