Goldsmith Proposes $32.7M Operating Budget

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

The town has many projects underway at any given time, like the long-awaited fish pier observation deck. FILE PHOTO

Selectmen: Focus More On Project Management

CHATHAM Town Manager Jill Goldsmith has proposed a $32,733,626 operating budget for fiscal 2021. Designed to keep the current level of services, the budget is up nearly 6 percent over the current year’s spending plan and includes the equivalent of five new full-time employees.

Selectmen praised Goldsmith and Finance Director Alix Heilala for the budget, and several members said they would support spending a bit more to help staff manage the town’s long list of special projects.

The balanced operating budget, up $1.84 million over this year’s figure, does not include the school assessments, which are still being finalized. It does include some small capital projects that were formerly presented in the capital plan.

Revenue projections remain strong, Heilala said. “Our property values remain high,” and property taxes will still be about $500,000 less than allowed by the state under Proposition 2½ . Local receipts from excise tax, user fees, charges and the hotel and meals taxes are strong.

With some 70 percent of the town’s revenue coming from property taxes, Selectman Peter Cocolis asked how the town would adapt if property values were to suddenly drop. “If we have a downturn, our tax rate has to go up,” he said. In the last recession, the town also adapted by reducing expenses, Heilala added.

“We cut staff quite substantially at that time,” she said. Goldsmith said she and Heilala have considered the possibility of a downturn, and will keep selectmen apprised if there are any troubling signs.

“We talk doom and gloom to each other all the time,” the town manager said, but there are safeguards in place to provide revenues in the event of a sudden emergency. The proposed FY21 budget does not make use of any of the town’s reserves, however.

On the expense side of the operating budget, Goldsmith said the 5.96 percent increase was necessary to meet the selectmen’s directive to keep a steady level of services. The general government category saw a11.68 percent hike, and the public works and facilities budget was up nearly $600,000, or 10.68 percent higher than the current year’s spending plan. Some of those increases are linked to the expected higher cost of retirement payments and property liability insurance, and new safety requirements by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have caused some departmental costs to jump. The budget also includes funding for some of the recommendations of the Chatham 365 Task Force, like an increase to the child care voucher program.

The budget includes the equivalent of five new full-time employees, which also involves the realignment of some current employees’ duties and increases in the number of hours offered to some part-time workers. The spending plan includes a new GIS/Projects Technician position, which will help existing staff with the use of geographic information systems and with certain elements of project management. There is also a new position of communications director, which will address “a growing need to manage community interaction and involvement” by streamlining the use of the town’s website, social media and email campaigns.

Under the spending plan, the public works department will also receive one full-time equivalent employee for operating special equipment, and additional hours for a seasonal gate attendant and recycling coordinators at the transfer station. The fire department would also pick up a half-time administrative assistant, partially filling a full-time vacancy from several years ago.

The budget calls for a $500,000 appropriation toward the town’s other post-employment benefit (OPEB) liability, which stands at around $17 million. On the current schedule, the liability will be fully funded in 16 years or less.

In its current draft, the Monomoy Regional School budget is up 2.27 percent, and Chatham’s preliminary assessment is expected to increase 5.83 percent to $9.67 million. The draft budget is expected to be sent to the towns this week, and the Monomoy school committee is likely to vote a final number in March. The town’s assessment to the Cape Tech district is expected to increase, with two more Chatham students opting to attend classes there next year.

Selectman Dean Nicastro said he’s eager to see progress on certain town projects, like the improvements at the former Eldredge Garage property and the landscaping around the Eldredge Public Library.

“We have a number of projects, some large, some small, that seem to take a long time to bring to completion,” he told the town manager. “Should we have some additional staffing to help your current staff, which is already very heavily tasked, be able to bring some of these projects to completion sooner?”

“Where we were looking at workload challenges, the projects component has always been difficult,” Goldsmith said. Principal Projects and Operations Administrator Terry Whalen is “a one-person department,” she said. The new GIS/Projects Technician will provide some support, “and we’re relying more and more on experts” to help with some projects, like the owners project manager assisting with some of the waterfront projects.

“I share Mr. Nicastro’s concern about project management,” Selectman Peter Cocolis said. Both the GIS position and the communications director will provide assistance to multiple town departments, he noted.

“I just did a quick back-of-the envelope,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. “Upweller, Ryder’s Cove, fish pier, fish pier deck, Eldredge garage, trap dock, council on aging, roadways. We’ve got a lot going on in this town.” He acknowledged the attempt in the budget to meet the need for progress in all those areas, “but I’m not convinced you have, to be quite frank.” It is clear that projects today have more requirements and are more complex than they were in the past, and citizens have high expectations.

“We ask a lot of you, and the town asks a lot of you,” Dykens said. “I would think long and hard about maybe reorganizing, re-crafting and addressing project management in and of itself, and if it affects the budget, so be it.” Selectmen stressed that the recommendation is not a reflection of staff’s work to this point, but of the increased demands placed on them.

“The projects are an overload for the staff,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. “It’s just a lot of work.”

The budget presentation included a $2.93 million capital spending plan, funded through free cash and other available funds rather than the tax levy. The water department budget, which is voted as a separate town meeting article and is funded by ratepayers, is recommended at $3.33 million in FY21, an increase of 5.27 percent.

Detailed information on this and previous town budgets is posted on the Budget Central section of the town’s website. The draft budget is subject to continued adjustment in the months ahead, and will be reviewed by the finance committee starting next month. It will ultimately be considered by voters at May’s annual town meeting.