CHATHAM – There is a level of “institutional stress” underlying next year's proposed town budget that may indicate it's time to step back, look at priorities and “take our foot off the gas,” according to a report from the finance committee.
The fincom had a “qualitatively different response to the budget” this year rather than the usual quantitative approach, Chairman Stephen Daniel told selectmen last week. Rather than digging into the numbers, the group took a “5,000 foot view of the budget as kind of a testament to stress.”
“Whether it is reflected in the 6.24 percent proposed increase, whether it was reflected by the request for five [full time equivalent] hires, or maybe the very simple and clear message [Town Manager] Jill [Goldsmith] embedded in one part of her budge message which was specifically we are approaching the maximum capacities in some areas to carry out the town priorities,” he said. “Hard to ignore that.”
Fincom members are in agreement that they are “sensing that there's a tension, a stress, within the workforce, within the machine,” he said. The town appears to be trying to do too much, especially regarding capital planning and large projects. Part of the problem is a lack of prioritization on the part of selectmen. There's no reference to priorities in the board's goals and objectives, and for several years now the fincom has recommended that there needs to be prioritization of both large and small capital projects, he said.
The five-year capital plan, for instance, includes $41.5 million in department of public works projects alone. The total for all departments is $55.4 million, and if water-related projects are included, the figure jumps to $64.5 million.
“That's a staggering number for this town, we think,” Daniel said.
One response could be to maintain the current pace and increasing the budget by hiring additional staff (which is what Goldsmith is proposing). Another may be “taking our foot off the gas a little bit” and deferring or scaling back capital projects, he said.
A third is to take a more “nuanced” approach to what it means to have a “level services” budget, which is what selectmen directed Goldsmith to develop.
“Taxpayers have come to expect and deserve a high level of services,” Daniel said. “But if part of the price is some of the outcomes we've seen, with deadlines missed and higher budgets, we wonder how much the taxpayers benefit or how much is lost from the benefit.”
The proposal for a new shellfish upweller at 90 Bridge St. is a “poster child” for how projects seem to escalate in cost and scale, he said. Initially pegged at $1 to $2 million, the last cost estimate was more than $4 million. Selectmen have asked waterways officials to look at scaling back the project, but it might be better to reconsider the scope and scale of the project, Daniel said. ARC in Dennis built a large shellfish hatchery for $1.2 million, he added
“We think we're trying to do too much and consideration should be given to trying to manage that for the benefit of taxpayers, for the benefit of consumers and especially for the benefit to our employees, who I think we all value,” he said.
Daniel offered several other specific items for selectmen to consider. He reiterated the fincom's previous position that $2.2 million from the intermunicipal sewer agreement with Harwich be used to pay down the town's Other Post-employment Benefit obligation, which has grown to $19.2 million. The IMA money should not be seen as more free cash. Last year's rejection by town meeting of a stabilization fund for the money should be taken as an indication that taxpayers want the money used for something other than capital spending, he said.
Goldsmith's proposal to add staff needs further justification, Daniel said. The fincom would like to see more prioritization in this area, and he noted that additional staff not only adds to the cost of salaries, but benefits as well. Also, the goals and objectives of the town's childcare voucher program should be considered, given a proposal to increase it to $75,000. The fincom supports this and other social infrastructure programs, but wants to make sure that it is “doing what we want it to be doing,” he said.
Daniel reinforced the fincom's “strong opposition” to the reconstruction of the Main Street/Crowell Road intersection. While public safety has been the justification for the project, which would be funded by the state, accident data doesn't back that up; according to Chatham Police, there were 33 accidents at the intersection between 2012 and 2019, and 20 of them resulted in damage of less than $1,000. The disruptions the work would cause, stress on the town's staff and the visual changes to what is the gateway to downtown do not justify the “urbanization” of the intersection, he said.
Officials should also stop to consider the impact of town projects on historic streetscapes, neighborhoods and vistas, which has been a major concern in the community, Daniel said.
“It's ironic,” the fincom's Feb. 10 report concludes, “as some of the very things that we object to for degrading the essential community we treasure may well be a byproduct of our high level of municipal project-based spending, and the scope and scale of some of those projects.”
Selectmen took the committee's analysis with equanimity.
“I'm not so sure how we discipline ourselves going forward,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, noting that despite major investments in infrastructure in the past two decades, it “always blows my mind” that there's always more to do. He added that given delays with the West Chatham Roadway Projects and detours caused by ongoing sewer work, “taking a pause” on the Main Street/Crowell Road intersection might not be a bad idea.
A number of different constituencies place demand on the town, noted Selectman Dean Nicastro, and some would take hits if projects are delayed or dropped. But he called the fincom report “thoughtful and creative.”
“Essentially the finance committee is telling us we're spending too much money,” Nicastro said. “And that's your job.”
“What we're trying to tell you,” Daniel replied, “is reallocate.”