CHATHAM — When it comes to encouraging young working families to stay in Chatham, the town’s economic development committee has voiced some creative ideas. Last week, selectmen said they’re listening.
The committee has raised the need for more affordable child care, and the need to control water rates, as two ways to ease the financial burden on working families. Selectmen last week agreed to schedule discussions on both proposals.
Giving his annual report to the board last week, EDC Chairman Luther Bates said his group outlined a proposal in late 2016 to expand day care and after-school programs, up to and including an initiative to provide “100 percent full time town-funded child care.”
“That’s something we would like to see pushed actively,” Bates said. While the greatest expense faced by working families is housing, the EDC is focused on offsetting the high cost of living in general.
“Maybe we couldn’t do anything specifically about the housing costs, but we could help their child care costs. If the money came out of the same pot, by reducing that pile of money, you’re essentially helping them to have a more affordable life in town,” Bates said.
Its recommendation in 2016 called for increasing the annual funding allocation to Monomoy Community Services, which provides affordable before-school, after-school and summer day care, and for the Childcare Network Voucher program it administers. That recommendation is already being implemented, with an $8,000 hike in town support for the voucher program included in the FY19 budget, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said.
“We’re looking to incrementally increase that,” she said. Two years ago, the town also increased its contribution to Monomoy Community Services from $117,000 to around $155,000, Goldsmith added.
Selectman Shareen Davis said she likes the emphasis on the voucher program and favors continuing the cooperation. Monomoy Community Services has its finger on the town’s pulse and knows Chatham’s needs, she said.
The committee also recommended creating a public-private partnership with other local child care providers to expand services, and coordinating with neighboring towns to develop a centralized child care facility for infants to pre-kindergarten children.
Bates said another strategy to expand child care might be to follow the example of Wellesley High School, which operates a “Child Lab” that allows high school students to care for young children, planning activities and gaining practical skills. A similar program operated at Harwich High School in the 1990s.
“They get credits for learning how to do this valuable life skill, while at the same time providing a much-needed social service,” Bates said. “It’s working, saving money and providing extra day care services to the people in town who need it most.”
“It sounds like a great partnership,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said.
At Davis’ request, the board will schedule a discussion on the EDC’s child care recommendations.
The EDC also made three specific recommendations about reducing the amount of money working families spend in their water bills. It’s part of a broader look at town fees, Bates said. Fee increases, even modest ones, can keep the town from raising property tax rates, but can harm working families, he said.
“It’s all well and good if we’re trying to stay under the limits of Prop 2½ so we can keep our property taxes down,” he said. “But it’s not great from the perspective of the person who pays it, when they’re in this critical demographic.” The EDC believes that all town departments and committees should consider the impact of fee increases on young working families, he said.
“We should be helping them, not incrementally adding to the burden,” Bates said.
Speaking specifically about water rates, Bates said the EDC believes that the need for expensive new water infrastructure, including filtration plants, wells or storage tanks, is driven by the high demand from private irrigation systems. Because that expense is shared by all water ratepayers, rather than just the high-volume users, it unfairly targets working families, he said. For that reason, the EDC is recommending that the town explore creating an incentive program to encourage the installation of new private wells.
Dykens said he agrees with the EDC’s two other water-related recommendations – a public education program for water conservation and an internal review of municipal water use – but isn’t sure about the private well incentive plan.
“Before I hop on board that one, I would like to have some further study,” he said. Dykens said the board needs to know how such a change would impact water revenues, the rate structure and the water department in general. “I really need to know the numbers,” he said.
Board member Dean Nicastro agreed, saying the water and sewer commission considered the idea of encouraging more private wells.
“It kind of cuts both ways,” he said. If less town water is used, there is a corresponding drop in revenues, “which are relied upon to handle the infrastructure.” More study is needed, Nicastro said.
The board voted to continue investigating that possibility, and to move ahead with the EDC’s other two water recommendations.
Bates also asked selectmen to communicate with other town officials about the need to consider the impacts of all rate and fee increases on working families.
“It’s got to be everybody on the same team doing it,” he said.