CHATHAM — Town Manager Jill Goldsmith presented selectmen Tuesday with a balanced, level-service operating budget for FY18 that's comfortably under the Proposition 2½ levy limit. At $30,124,872, it represents an increase of 3.89 percent over the current year's spending plan.
The figure doesn't include the cost of educating the town's children, which adds approximately $9.3 million in assessments to the Monomoy and Cape Tech school districts. It also doesn't include nearly $3 million in water department expenses, which are funded through the water rates, and a capital budget of nearly $2.2 million. All tolled, the omnibus budget proposal for fiscal 2018 is $53,795,702, the same as the town's projected revenues.
Finance Director Alix Heilala told the board that a number of elements of the spending plan remain in flux, including the school assessments, which have not yet been voted by the school committee. But she said the town's approach to unknown expenses and revenues is to use conservative numbers. As the figures stand now, the spending plan calls for the town to use about $200,000 less than it would be allowed to do if it were to raise property taxes by the full 2.5 percent allowed by law. The budget would not rely on the use of stabilization funds or free cash.
The biggest increase in the proposed operating budget comes from the increased cost of employee benefits, which is up 11.2 percent, representing an additional $530,810. Police and fire overtime drove public safety expenses up nearly 6 percent, adding $345,105 to the budget, and public works added $283,293, an increase of 6 percent over their current year's allocation. The cost of insurance, linked partly to the new fire department headquarters building, increased nearly 11 percent, or $66,750.
The projected 3.9 percent operating budget increase includes some staffing increases, with notable hikes in the rates paid to seasonal employees and the number of hours included in various departmental budgets. There is additional funding for the town's legal budget and for a consultant for the community development department to help establish two new historic districts in town – though that cost may be at least partially covered by the Community Preservation Act, Goldsmith said. Funds are included to provide increased shorebird monitoring on North (Nauset) Beach, and additional staffing for the department of public works, including a part-time gate guard at the transfer station. The spending plan also restores a long-vacant foreman position for the parks and recreation department's grounds crew.
Among the items that were sought by department heads but were not included in the draft budget were a school resource officer sought by the police department. “We'll revisit that again next year,” Goldsmith said.
Heilala said the town continues to have an excellent bond rating and a low tax rate, though property valuations are up about 4 percent, at their highest level since fiscal 2010. The average home value in town is $872,615, compared to $249,975 in 2000. Though new home construction and renovations were strong in 2016, the value of that construction is down a third from last year. The draft budget anticipates $250,000 in new growth in fiscal 2018, a number Heilala said is likely conservative.
The capital budget includes various big-ticket items, including a new ambulance and upgrades to the police radio system. Requests larger than $250,000 will be considered as separate warrant articles, including improvements at Ryder's Cove landing, replacement of the south jog float at the fish pier, and $250,000 for anticipated landscaping for the new West Chatham Route 28 corridor.
“And that's a high-end estimate,” Goldsmith said. Another big-ticket item, a $200,000 street sweeper, is being deferred to fiscal 2019.
Selectman Seth Taylor said he calculated the per capita cost of town government to be nearly $9,000, compared to $7,343 in fiscal 2016. “That's something that gives me pause,” he said. He also noted that while average property values have increased almost 350 percent since 2010, the minimum wage is only up 37 percent. The increased cost of living in Chatham threatens to change the town's complexion, he noted.
Board member Dean Nicastro said that while Chatham is paying less to educate its children than it did several years ago, “we have fewer younger families in town with children.”
As did other members of the board, Chairman Jeffrey Dykens thanked staff for the budget presentation. Dykens noted that the town continues to benefit from high residential property values.
“We are extremely advantaged by our property tax base here in Chatham,” he said.
Selectmen will be revisiting the budget in detail in upcoming meetings. A variety of budget documents are available in the Budget Central section of the town's website.