Chatham Fincom Opines On Budget, COA, School Funding

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

Budget and finance.

CHATHAM Speaking to selectmen and the town manager Monday, finance committee Chairman Stephen Daniel praised town staff for producing a “good budget” for fiscal 2020. But he said his group has cautionary words on the proposed new council on aging and on school spending.

Daniel observed that the operating budget, as first proposed, grew only 1.77 percent, a laudable proposal at a time when many costs are increasing. Now, thanks largely to news that most health insurance costs will be holding steady at current spending levels, “that number is now down to 1.29 percent,” he said. There are no proposed increases in town staffing, he added.

If approved in full by voters, the town’s omnibus budget – which includes proposed warrant articles, school assessments and all other spending – would jump more than 12 percent over the current year’s budget. The hike from $49.7 million to $55.7 million is notable, Daniel said.

The creation of a new capital improvement plan highlights the need for some $65 million in projects sought in the next five years, a number that some might find breathtaking. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it all. It doesn’t mean we’re going to do it all in five years,” he said. Excluding items on warrant articles, the FY20 spending plan calls for a marked increase in capital projects in proportion to the operating budget, which represents a potentially significant policy shift, he wrote.

When the town pays down debt to a certain level, it routinely uses that extra capacity to borrow funds for the next capital project, yet Daniel said this practice, known as using “debt drop-off,” isn’t referenced in the town’s financial policies. The finance committee advised selectmen to “periodically review the unstated policy of, and assumptions behind, the use of debt drop-off,” Daniel wrote in a memo to the board. Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro agreed, likening the policy to “sleight of hand,” saying that when a person pays down his mortgage, his first impulse is not usually to incur more debt.

The finance committee is also concerned that the new council on aging, as designed, will be larger than necessary. Daniel said he has heard some informal talk of the facility being built to include a swimming pool and walking trails.

“We have to look at actual needs and projected needs,” he said. The finance committee would have preferred that the board incorporated existing town facilities into the senior center project, but acknowledges that selectmen prefer the site on Middle Road, which provides opportunities for the building to be expanded, Daniel noted. He questioned some of the town’s estimates of the future use of the senior center, saying they are likely too high.

“We have to understand very clearly what the demand is,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said, but the town shouldn’t take too long to re-analyze that need. It would be unwise for the town to delay the project one or two years in the interest of scaling it back, “and all of a sudden it costs us a million dollars more.”

Daniel acknowledged that view, but said it would be just as unwise to bring an overly ambitious project to voters and have it “shot down” on the floor of town meeting.

With regard to the Monomoy Regional School District budget, Daniel said the finance committee understands the financial challenges facing the district.

“This committee has thought in recent years that the budgetary pressures on MRSD are both largely political, and largely unfortunate,” Daniel’s memo reads. The finance committee believes that the district has spent too much from its stabilization fund in recent years, leading to shortfalls like the current one, he said. Daniel said the staff reductions proposed in the FY20 budget are likely to have a negative impact on students, and that’s harmful to year-round working families.

“From the context of the [Chatham] 365 initiative, cutting teachers from your school is not something that’s going to be a magnet to draw families to town,” he said. When it comes to seeing the results of discord in a regional school district, “you don’t have to look very far to the west,” Daniel said. The Dennis-Yarmouth regional school district is deeply divided over the proposed construction of a new middle school, and the town of Yarmouth has filed suit to try and block the project.