Chatham Spent $60 Million At Annual Town Meeting; Here's A Wrap Up Of Votes

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Politics , Town Meeting , Municipal Planning and Zoning , Municipal Finance

Selectmen confer prior to the annual town meeting. Tim Wood PHOTO 

CHATHAM – Voters spent some $60 million at the annual town meeting, and while the major expenditures received coverage last week, there were numerous smaller appropriations that didn't make the news but nonetheless deserve attention.
There were also several articles that were not acted upon, including changes to the Monomoy Regional School district agreement. Although the changes mostly involved removing references to the transition from separate districts to Harwich and Chatham's regional relationship, school committee members wanted more time to review and publicize the alterations. The changes were also postponed in Harwich.
Early in the meeting, James “Buck” Upson, one of the town's representatives on the Cape Cod Regional Technical High School school committee, objected to the $276,612 assessment, which covers eight Chatham students and the town's share of the debt for the new school building now under construction. His opposition was a protest to a reduction in shop hours, he said; students spend less than two hours per day in shops compared to three-plus hours per day on other Massachusetts technical schools. The funding was approved 321-166, but Moderator William Litchfield noted that officials will notice the objection, since the measure usually passes unanimously.
A proposal to transfer $2,265,000 from free cash, basically the first installment from Harwich as part of the intermunicipal agreement for use of Chatham's wastewater treatment plant, into a capital stabilization fund failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority required to pass.
“To be clear, money goes in, it gets spent,” Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel said of a stabilization fund. The panel felt the Harwich money would be better used to pay down the town's debt or cover its other post-employment (OPEB) debt. A few articles later, the town added $300,000 to its OPEB trust fund, and in the very next article voted to approve a 1.5 percent property tax surcharge to further fund the OPEB trust.
Last year voters approved a similar article authorizing the select board to file special legislation to allow the town to implement the surcharge, which goes into effect Jan. 1, the same time the 3 percent land bank surcharge expires. Last Tuesday's vote was necessary to initiate the new 1.5 percent assessment.
Last week town meeting also approved adding $85,000 to its war chest to continue the fight with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. The money pays for legal fees and lobbying in the effort to set the western boundary at low water, rather than farther out in Nantucket Sound, as declared in the Monomoy Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
Voters also approved $1 million to replace old water mains; $175,000 to redesign the connection between the Chatham and Harwich water systems, which is used during major fires or when there are equipment or contamination problems in either town; $90,000 for improvements to well number three in South Chatham, which dates from the early 1960s; and $150,000 for a hydraulic survey to look at the water system's future needs related to pipe size.
Several general bylaw changes were approved. With the sunset of the state land bank surcharge coming in January, the name of the town's land bank and open space committee was changed to the Chatham Open Space Committee. A change to the town's historic preservation bylaw was approved which changes the way demolition delay decisions are applied. With the approval, delays imposed by the historical commission are no longer transferrable between owners. That means that one owner can't start the demolition delay process in anticipation of later selling the property after the delay has expired, which the commission refers to as “starting the clock.” Commission members say the change will allow them to work directly with owners in trying to save historically significant structures.
The town adopted the so-called “Stretch Energy Code” which will contribute to Chatham's designation as a Green Community through the state department of energy. Changes to the town's sewer regulations were approved, as well as an easement on Skunks Neck Road and a final town acquisition of the ancient Baptist Cemetery on Old Queen Anne Road. Although a special act of the legislature in 1967 allowed the town to take title to the cemetery, the town never took the deed.
Voters also approved the acceptance of public ways in the Stage Neck area, and on a 101-60 vote, approved a resolution filed by petition to support a special commission to examine and recommend changes to the state seal and flag, which currently features a sword poised above the image of a Native American man.
With the loss of the $100,000 request for a shark barrier at Oyster Pond, the projected tax rate per thousand valuation, based on the expenditures approved at town meeting, will increase from $4.85 this year to $4.99, according to Finance Director Alix Heilala. Although the overall increase in total spending is up about 3 percent, most of that will be covered by increased revenue.
Litchfield took advantage of a pause while votes were being counted to get a sense of how attendees felt about electronic voting at town meeting, which some other towns utilize to expedite recorded votes. From the reaction, he concluded that voters were “unenthused” about the idea.
Town Counsel Patrick Costello also provided a clarification of the vote taken on the petition to amend the town's charter to change the name of the board of selectmen to the select board. Before the change takes effect, a special act of the state legislature is required to change the charter; a bylaw change would also be necessary to reflect the change.
“There are a few legal issues that will have to be sorted out before any name change would become effective,” he wrote in an email.