Summer Residents Urge Prudence In Capital Spending

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

Budget and finance.

CHATHAM If the town doesn’t carefully prioritize spending on big-ticket items, it will be stretched thin when it comes time to borrow for upcoming phases of the multi-year, multi-million dollar wastewater project. That was the message delivered to selectmen by the summer residents’ advisory committee.

Advisory committee Chairman Jill MacDonald said the committee supports a plan to prioritize large capital projects to control debt service and applauds work done in the last two years to meet the board of selectmen’s goal to control costs on big-ticket infrastructure projects.

“While once it was thought that the fire station would complete Chatham’s rebuilding of major facilities, that has proved to be wrong, and we must recognize that the list of wanted capital improvements continues to grow,” MacDonald said.

The summer residents’ advisory committee reviews issues important to the town and submits annual recommendations to the board of selectmen on various topics. The committee unanimously voted this year’s recommendations on Aug. 16, and MacDonald read the report out loud to the board Monday.

MacDonald said that Chatham’s debt service—chiefly the interest paid on money the town borrows—amounted to more than $7.2 million last year. That translates to $998 for each housing unit in town, “the highest on Cape Cod,” she said.

“There are millions of dollars of proposed capital projects under consideration which could increase the annual debt service to $8 or $9 million,” MacDonald added. For that reason, the town needs to carefully prioritize the large capital projects it seeks.

“First, to be included in the prioritization process, capital projects should advance Chatham’s long-term plans and vision for the town’s future needs. For example, coastal improvements at the fish pier and in Stage Harbor should be viewed in the context of the changes outlined in the recent Coastal Resiliency Assessment and in satisfying the needs of fishing and shellfishing, recreational boating, beaches and tourism in this changing environment,” she said.

The coastal resiliency study warned that the evolution of the barrier beach would likely cause significant shoaling in the area of Aunt Lydia’s Cove. Some worry that, in the long term, that shoaling threatens the viability of the fish pier as a commercial fish offloading facility.

Also, before a project is placed on the capital plan, the town should have a clear vision of the specific use, size, location and cost of the project, MacDonald said.

“The council on aging facility and 90 Bridge St. are examples of the problems that can arise if there is not a shared vision of the fully realized project,” she said. “Proper budgeting of existing and future projects is needed to maintain confidence in the project.”

Both the proposed senior center and the new shellfish upweller at 90 Bridge St. were scaled back after initial proposals were deemed too large and expensive.

The summer residents’ advisory committee does not oppose a new senior center, but it recommends containing the size and the cost. It also is urging the town to build a new council on aging on the current Stony Hill Road site, rather than purchasing or re-purposing a different parcel.

“Finally, we need to keep in mind that implementation of Chatham’s comprehensive wastewater management plan will need to be fully funded to complete the project by 2040,” MacDonald noted. According to an evaluation of the town’s borrowing position by Standard and Poor’s, Chatham has had an elevated debt profile since it embarked on the $210 million plan 10 years ago, and the town plans to borrow between $10 and $15 million every two years until the project is complete in 2040.