CHATHAM – A number of questions critical to the town's future will face voters at next Monday's annual town meeting, including upgrading drinking water infrastructure, moving forward with a new senior center, protecting Nantucket Sound beaches and mechanisms to pay for benefits for retired town employees.
Voters will also be asked to decide if they want to allow retail marijuana sales in town and whether or not balloons will be sold at future band concerts.
The meeting begins Monday, May 14, at 6 p.m. in the gymnasium at the Monomoy Regional Middle School on Crowell Road.
In a move to streamline the session, 16 articles will be grouped into a consent calendar. The articles will be acted on in a single vote, but any one can be removed at the request of one voter, said Moderator William Litchfield.
“If any voter thinks that an article ought to be removed and discussed separately, all he or she needs to do is say hold or remove, and that will come off,” he said. For many years, when warrants typically ran to more than 100 articles, a consent calendar was routine. After the town adopted its charter and measures previously acted upon as separate articles were folded into budgets or capital projects, the number of warrant articles shrank to 30 or 40 and the consent calendar was dropped. The number has begun to climb again in recent years, Litchfield said; this year's warrant has 49 articles.
“While I am a strong believer in the right of voters to have full discussion and debate, some things we can reasonably conclude will not engender discussion,” he said. The list includes various revolving funds, the $144,333 Cape Cod Tech assessment, 10 of the 16 Community Preservation Act funding requests, an intermunicipal agreement on the proposed Pleasant Bay watershed permit pilot project and adoption of an update of the Pleasant Bay Management Plan.
“There's no hard feelings if voters want to discuss one or more of them,” Litchfield said, although he allowed that grouping one-third of the warrant's articles into a single vote will help ensure the meeting concludes in a single evening.
In major spending measures, voters will act on a $30 million operating budget, a $9.2 million Monomoy school district budget, a $2.7 million water department budget and a $2 million capital plan. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith pointed voters to a 20-page explanation of the budgets included as an appendix in the warrant as well as the warrant preview show video posted on the town's website.
Capital projects include $100,000 for a feasibility study for a new senior center and $450,000 to nourish Nantucket Sound beaches. Both address the needs of significant town assets, noted Chairman of Selectmen Cory Metters. “They're going to set the tone for moving forward,” he said. Maintain the beaches is especially important, added Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel; losing them could have a significant economic impact on the town, he said. Goldsmith added demonstrating that the town is actively working to protect its shoreline could help it qualify for FEMA reimbursement in the future.
Other capital projects include $483,000 for building and site improvements at the Eldredge Public Library and $111,250 for the town's share of the $2.2 million repaving of the airport's parallel taxiway.
Upgrading and maintaining the town's water infrastructure impacts the town in several ways, including the economy and quality of life. There are five water capital articles totaling $2.1 million for water mains, wells and to replace the more than 20-year-old technology that runs the system.
“If there's an egg that the goose sits on, at the end of the day, it's water,” Daniel said. If they system can't deliver, “we've got a problem.” But upgrades have to be tied to regulation around irrigation. “I think water is something we as a committee will be looking at more next year, because there's more big bills to come,” he said.
Three articles deal with the somewhat arcane subject of other post-employment benefits, or OPEB, which is essentially the town's obligation to pay the future benefits of retired employees. This is considered to be an unfunded liability that threatens to impact the town's stellar AAA bond rating. As of June 2016, the town's unfunded liability was estimated at $16.8 million. For several years, the town has been socking away $150,000 toward the liability; at that rate, Daniel calculated it will take 110 years to meet the obligation.
“What we're presently doing is not addressing it,” said Daniel.
To get there sooner, town officials are proposing two home-rule petitions to allow the town to reach the goal in 10 to 15 years. One requests that the town be allowed to repurpose half of the current land bank property tax surcharge, or 1.5 percent, once the land bank expires in 2020. That would raise about $500,000 annually.
More controversial is a proposal to ask the legislature to allow the town to levy a .05 percent tax on real estate sales. The tax would apply to sales over $425,000 and would not apply to sales between family members. Based on recent sales, the tax could raise more than $700,000 annually.
The proposal has met strong opposition from the real estate industry. The Cape Cod and the Islands Association of Realtors has sent at least two mailings to residents and mounted a telephone campaign to defeat the the measure, Article 23. The mailing calls the transfer tax “double taxation” that unfairly targets those buying or selling a home.
“It's a sales tax on homes – on top of the property taxes you already pay!” the mailing states.
There are two major general bylaw amendments on the warrant, both of which require a simple majority to pass. Article 20 would prohibit all types of marijuana establishments, include retail sales, product manufacturing, cultivation and testing laboratories. While a state-wide vote in 2016 approved the sale of recreational marijuana, Chatham voters rejected the ballot question 2,611 to 1,924.
The other question would ban the sale of and release of inflated balloons in town as of Sept. 15. Advocates say the balloons are hazard to wildlife and create litter on beaches and in the marine environment. The September
Officials are also seeking $85,000 to continue efforts to fight the federal government's claim over the waters and flats west of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge (see separate story).
Major Community Preservation Act funding requests include $450,000 for new bleachers at Veterans Field and $262,500 to purchase land on Bridge Street for a town landing.
Free childcare for kids 3 and older will be available at the meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m. The school's library will be staffed by park and recreation department employees until 10 p.m.
Copies of the warrant are available to read or download at the town's website, www.chatham-ma.gov, on the town meeting page. The site also includes a link to an annual town meeting preview video.