Finances, Services, Housing At Issue In Brewster Election

by Rich Eldred

BREWSTER – The League of Women voters held a select board candidates forum May 7 at the Brewster Ladies’ Library.

There are two seats open in the May 28 election, with polls at the Brewster Baptist Church open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Incumbent vice chair Mary Chaffee is seeking her third term while Laurel Labdon, chair of the Brewster Housing Authority, and Amanda Bebrin, chair of the planning board and bay property planning committee, are looking for their first.

The forum was spirited and covered a range of issues. There were differences on how they viewed town finances.

“I’m worried about the town’s financial condition. I think we’re on a path that isn’t sustainable,” Labdon said. “We went from having money in the bank to being $101 million in debt in 11 years. The majority of that was Nauset renovation and the Sea Camps properties purchase, which I supported. We have several looming debts that we will have to incur, not discretionary; the Stony Brook School has some serious issues — the roof leaking, the HVAC system and the fire chief is looking for a grant for four more firefighters. We’ve got a lot of financial stresses in the near term. We as taxpayers have to be very careful about what we choose to approve.”

The other candidates thought Brewster was very careful and prudent.

“Is the town in good financial condition? I would say yes,” Bebrin said. “We have a triple-A bond rating and we have a very high ability to repay. When we talk about debt we look at the big number, the total, and what lenders are going to look for is the ability to repay, and we are indeed able to do that. We have an extensive budgeting process and an extremely experienced finance team and many layers of scrutiny. I love that Brewster has resources for residents to dig into what their tax money pays for. It’s a big number when you add it all up, but when you dig into all of the programs and services staff it really is incredible.”

Chaffee also said the town is managing its finances very well.

“Brewster is in excellent financial health. We just got a national award for our budgeting process,” she said. “We have growing stabilization funds which is a very healthy feature. We have a new financial reserves policy. We have a strong five-year free cash retained average and we use five-year financial forecasting to aid our budgeting process. Debt, while it is a four-letter word, is not that kind of four-letter word. We use debt as a tool to achieve our goals. I’ve never been able to buy a car with cash. Most of us need a car loan or a school loan. That’s what the town of Brewster does, too. We use debt as a tool to purchase expensive capital assets and to build infrastructure, and every dollar of debt we have is because Brewster voters at town meeting held their hand up in the air.”

The town has an operating override on the ballot May 28. How can the town cut spending and provide services?

“That question presumes we need to cut services, and I don’t agree with that premise,” Chaffee replied. “Brewster exists to provide essential services and programs to residents. Brewster operates on a very lean budget. There is no padding in any town department. We squeezed every bit of value out of every tax dollar. If we asked ‘let’s save money by cutting our budget,’ what would we cut? Should we cut the water department and ask everyone to pay for the expense of digging their own well? Should we go to a part-time police force or fire department? If there were easy ways to cut our spending the expert finance team that we have would have figured those out.”

“The allure of cutting spending is powerful until you start to dig into what it is that our tax money pays for,” Bebrin said. “I would hate to see us lose our recreation programming, our council on aging, the maintenance of our roads. We have a really rigorous budget process and an experienced finance team. We have an incredible town staff. Everyone is so cognizant of the fact they are spending taxpayer money. Many of them are working above and beyond what their contracts state. The idea of having a town is that we can tackle things collectively that we can’t do individually. The role of the select board is to provide very robust information so that voters understand the impact tax wise and also on the quality of life.”

“I don’t think we need to cut services in town. I think we need to be much more careful about our spending,” Labdon said. “We’ve got some huge looming projects, the most crucial being the Stony Brook renovation. If the elementary school in Orleans is any indication I’m extremely worried about what the tax impact will be on the ability of our residents to stay here and thrive. We need to pull in our belts and be extremely careful with what we spend.”

One thing Brewster has spent money and time on is protecting the town’s water supply and water resources.

“Water is essential for life,” Chaffee said. “We use it in almost all of our activities and personal lives. It is essential for individual health, for recreation, for the environment here, for the Cape’s economy. Many of our waters are impaired with nitrogen and excess phosphorus from a number of sources. Brewster has aggressively worked to protect and restore our water resources since the 1980s. In 2009 we launched our integrated water resources management plan. We now have a water resources task force, key town leaders who are working together. We are actively engaged in watershed permits where we are looking to reduce excess nitrogen. We have a zoning bylaw that adds additional restrictions and protections in certain areas of Brewster.”

Labdon agreed the town has done a lot but could do more.

“We need to reaffirm our commitment to our water quality constantly,” she said. “Brewster has done an amazing job with their well water. It is award-winning. We are incredibly fortunate that we don’t need a town-wide sewer system, but we must do a better job protecting our groundwater, ponds and coastal resources from excess nutrients, pesticides and other harmful chemicals. We need cost-effective, community-wide solutions such as following the lead of neighboring towns while pursuing home-rule petitions for pesticide and fertilizer reduction bylaws. If I were on the select board I would have voted to pursue that.”

The select board declined to bring a proposed pesticide reduction home-rule petition before voters at town meeting this spring.

“Brewster does so much about water quality. Water quality is a top priority for Brewster residents,” Bebrin said. “I served for two years on our vision planning committee working on our local comprehensive plan. We have money for consideration on our town meeting warrant for the integrated water resources management plan so that we can update it after 10 years and identify strategies for each bucket of water, so to speak. We enjoy large setbacks from ponds for septic systems, and as a member of the planning board I helped craft our new stormwater bylaw. Our tradition of preserving open space itself is a huge buffer and asset to our water quality.”

Open space is one reason Brewster doesn't require a large sewer project like Chatham, Harwich or Orleans. But a town can’t be all open space. Affordable housing is a critical issue and is now affecting Brewster's ability to attract teachers, police and fire personnel as they struggle to find a place to live.

“I work in housing advocacy (at the Community Development Partnership),” Bebrin said. “My role is to run a program that provides education resources and support for municipal officials in Lower and Outer Cape towns so they can understand what they can do in their individual towns. I do not profit if Brewster pursues any particular strategy. That’s important for residents to know. My decision-making in my town capacity is always guided by input from Brewster residents. We need to explore changing our zoning to allow for multifamily housing, especially in village centers, those are areas that are already developed so it protects the environment. We have a tremendous housing office and having a pipeline of projects in different stages of development helps us keep a supply of units coming on.”

Chaffee has helped guide some projects through the select board.

“Housing is a basic human need and Brewster and the Cape face serious obstacles,” she said. “We’ve got particular pressure because we are a resort community. We need a multi-pronged approach to address our housing needs. There’s not a magic solution that’s going to fix it. Brewster has made significant progress. We’ve recently opened Brewster Woods and Serenity at Brewster and have two Habitat for Humanity homes that will be completed this summer. We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas as far as achieving our mandatory state 10 percent minimum. We’re at 7.2 percent now.”

Labdon also cited her experience as chair of the Brewster Housing Authority.

“We are constantly looking for new properties in town where we can initiate affordable housing opportunities,” she said. “We do need to concentrate on getting attainable housing as well. I think we should use every tool in the tool box that we have. We need to make ADUs (accessory dwelling units) easier to do. I also believe while we do have two big properties, only the pond property has significant affordable housing in the plan. I’m sorry to see the bay property committee decided not to include housing. We need to look into mixed dwellings and change zoning so we can allow businesses to put apartments above their business. Any tool in the toolbox I would support so long as it doesn’t detract from Brewster’s small town [atmosphere].”