Annual Town Reports Provide Insight Into Communities

By: Tim Wood

The wholesale value of the harvest of commercial shellfishermen in Chatham last year was $1.9 million. FILE PHOTO

Each community in Massachusetts publishes an annual town report, usually about the time of the annual town meeting. The reports cover the previous year and contain a wealth of information and statistics that provide insight into how towns operate, municipal priorities and the people who make local government work.

The Chatham, Harwich and Orleans reports for 2018 have all arrived—Chatham was the last one, becoming available in print (they're also on line) last week—and we thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare different aspects of the communities as expressed in the publications. There's no value judgment implied here, just a comparison of how things went down in the three towns last year in a variety of categories.

Each report opens with lists of elected and appointed officials, town staff and boards and committees and their members. An in memoriam list of those who passed away the previous year as well as a list of gifts given to the town starts off the Harwich report (354 pages in total, but smaller—five-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half inches, compared to Chatham and Orleans larger format 11 by eight-and-a-half). Orleans (192 pages) opens with a dedication (to Ben Buck this year) an in memoriam and list of facts about the town. Chatham (a comparatively slim 132 pages) launches right into the annual reports of the selectmen and town manager following a brief in memoriam after the list of officers.

All three reports contain a recounting of each town's 2018 annual town meeting and election along with detailed budget and accounting information. There's some interesting data to be gleaned from those reports, but the more nuanced and insightful comments can be found in the written reports of town departments. That's where you can learn, for instance, about the goals of Harwich's Channel 18 crew, the challenging year that the Orleans Council On Aging experienced, and the lessons the Chatham Harbormaster learned thanks to the rapidly changing conditions in the town's waterways.

Based on the way the information is presented, it's not always possible to make a side-by-side comparison. Some towns list data in different ways, or don't break out specific numbers or information. For instance, Chatham lists its room occupancy tax revenue ($1.3 million) and meals tax ($441,000) separately, while the other towns group them with other revenue sources. But in some areas reports are more or less the same, and that data can tell us some interesting things about the differences between the towns. Here are a few examples:

Chatham's total outstanding debt is $68 million, Orleans $63 million and Harwich $47.5 million. Police in Chatham responded to 19,080 calls, while the fire department reported 3,149 incidents. Harwich fire received 5,029 calls while police reported 18,154 incidents. In Orleans, police received 12,672 calls and fire 3,550. Chatham issued 1,060 building permits, 42 of which were for new dwellings. Orleans issued just under 700 permits, 18 of which were for new homes. Harwich doesn't include year-end building stats in its report. Chatham's health division issued 394 permits, while Harwich issued 1,330 permits through its health department, and Orleans issued 511. Total payroll in Orleans was $14.4 million (not including Nauset Regional Schools) and Harwich paid its employees $17.3 million. Chatham lists employee salaries but does not provide a total.

At the Chatham annual election last year, 1,583 voters cast ballots; 1,881 voted in Harwich's town election and 904 people voted in the Orleans town election. Orleans' population is listed at 6,294, with 5,344 registered voters (1,397 Democrat, 913 Republican, 2,993 unenrolled and 41 other); Chatham had 6,301 residents and 5,775 registered voters (1,247 Democrat, 1,136 Republican, 3,334 unenrolled, 16 Libertarians and 42 other); Harwich's population was 12,774, with 10,775 registered voters (2,697 Democrat, 1,688 Republican, 33 Libertarian and 43 others, including three registered as “Pirate”).

Harwich's Brooks Free Library gets the prize for the greatest circulation, with 249,118 items checked out, including electronic resources. Snow Library in Orleans was next with a circulation of 149,145, and Chatham's Eldredge Public Library had a total circulation of 119,023.

The three towns take different approaches to reporting shellfish data. Chatham's commercial harvest had a wholesale value estimated at $1.9 million, while its recreation harvest was valued at $202,000. There were 228 commercial shellfish permits issued in Chatham and 1,178 recreational permits. Orleans reports total pounds landed, not the value; the commercial catch included 294,201 pounds of quahogs, 14,669 pounds of soft-shell clams, 5,110 pounds of mussels, 2,617 pounds of razor clams and 1,809 pounds of scallops. The town issued 305 commercial permits and 1,266 resident and nonresident family permits. Harwich didn't report landings, but issued three commercial permits, 208 resident and nonresident family permits and 160 resident senior permits.

Finally, in Harwich 240 residents died, while 73 births were reported to the town clerk's office. In Chatham, 117 residents died, while 26 newborns were welcomed. Orleans saw 28 new residents and 104 deaths.

Annual town reports are available at town halls and other town buildings.