Chatham 365 Proposes Tax, Child Care, Zoning And Wage Reforms; Push For Universal Preschool Gains Ground

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Education , Economic development

CHATHAM — Saying there’s no single action that will help make Chatham an affordable place for young families and other year-round residents, the Chatham 365 Task Force has recommended a varied package of 30 reforms that cover everything from affordable housing to the minimum wage.

One proposal, having the school district offer universal preschool, seems to be gaining traction.

The detailed proposal is the culmination of nine months’ work by the task force, which held two public forums before refining and proposing initiatives in four broad areas: economic empowerment, zoning, community buoyancy and civic vibrancy. Involving a total of about 140 participants, the forums focused on identifying the obstacles that make it difficult for people to live here year-round

Task force member Bill Bystrom said their research shows that 17 percent of people in Chatham live under the poverty level, mostly women and girls. More than half of children in the town qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the cost of living here is 72 percent higher than the national average, he said.

The key to enhancing affordability in Chatham is “closing the gap between wages and housing,” task force member Tracy Shields said. “It’s a glaring disparity.”

In the area of economic empowerment, the group recommends that the town expand high-speed internet access and offer business incentives, while increasing the town-wide minimum hourly wage to $15. Such a move has not apparently been done before in Massachusetts, but does not appear to be prohibited by state law, Shieldds said. At the very least, the town could adopt that standard for its own employees.

“What a great message and standard and example to set,” Shields said. The group also proposes having the town provide incentives for child care providers and seeking to recruit a seafood processor to open a plant in town.

In the second focus area, the task force would have the town change its approach to zoning to allow more apartments, townhouses and higher-density residential development in appropriate areas. The lack of affordable housing “presents a threat to Chatham’s character,” task force member Katie Nickerson said. Current zoning has focused on reducing the density of development in a bid to preserve community character, but the result has been a scarcity of affordable housing. Few homes are available for purchase at below $300,000 or $400,000, “and even the rare home that does sell for that price is still too much” for many year-rounders to afford, Nickerson said.

The task force identifies “community buoyancy” as efforts that mitigate the high cost of living in Chatham, and the group identified 10 ways town government could ease the burden on year-round residents, member Lindsay Bierwirth said. The town should offer property tax breaks for full-time residents and provide additional incentives for those who provide year-round rentals. Chatham could offer help with housing down payments, she added.

The town could also provide young families with an important boost by providing taxpayer-funded universal preschool for all young children in Chatham, Bierwirth said. The cost of early childhood care and education is a heavy burden for young families in town, she said.

“We are ready for our child care. The town is ready to put in place a well thought-out town-funded universal pre-K,” she said.

Former selectman Florence Seldin, a retired superintendent of schools, said she supports the idea of early childhood education. She urged selectmen to officially ask the superintendent of Monomoy Schools to devise a plan to offer universal pre-K for Chatham youngsters starting in fiscal 2021.

The board of selectmen embraced the idea and voted to do so unanimously.

In the final focus area, “civic vibrancy,” the task force recommended a variety of strategies designed to engage citizens in government and bring together residents of different ages and backgrounds. A key first step is to establish a committee to find ways to make the annual town meeting easier for working families to attend. Task force member Danielle Tolley said the last town meeting lasted nearly eight hours over two nights, making it almost impossible for parents of young children to attend. While town meeting is held up as a pure form of democracy, it is not inclusive for today’s citizens.

“We need to take a 17th century concept and bring it into the 21st century,” she said. One simple step would be to move the meeting to a Saturday, Tolley said.

Improving civic engagement will also require a more user-friendly town website and continued public forums to talk about key issues, she said. Other steps toward civic vibrancy could include building a senior center that connects young people with seniors, and building a community pool, Tolley said.

The task force made several concrete suggestions for selectmen to consider, including having a formal planning process aimed at promoting year-round sustainability. Selectmen agreed and voted unanimously to direct the town manager to include funds in the next budget for a “visioning session” for a community sustainability plan.

Each member of the board of selectmen offered thanks for the committee and its members, as well as the citizens who provided their opinions about sustainability. Board members praised many of the task force recommendations and pledged to keep them in mind when setting their priorities for the next town budget, a process that will begin shortly.

While Selectman Dean Nicastro said he supports many of the recommendations, he is cautious about endorsing all of them. “I may be in the minority in this town,” Nicastro said, but he believes that zoning has been too liberal, not too strict. While denser multi-family housing is appropriate in some areas, “I don’t want to interrupt 300 years of history that has identified Chatham as a wonderful single-family residence town,” he said. Also, a residential tax exemption promises to be “a very divisive issue,” he said, and it might be wise to see how similar proposals have worked in neighboring towns before trying it in Chatham. But on the whole, the task force has recommended “a number of very interesting ideas,” Nicastro said.

Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis, who co-chaired the task force with Selectman Peter Cocolis, said many of the issues the town faces today are similar to ones raised decades ago. “But it’s extreme now,” she said. “We need to try some new ideas” and be open to new tactics that could support a thriving, year-round community in Chatham, she said.

Cocolis agreed, and praised the task force for its energy and vision.

“You’re the future of our town,” he said.

Selectmen thanked the task force for completing its work and voted unanimously to dissolve it.

“Keep an eye on the process,” Davis told them.