Our View: Push Town Meetings To The Fall

Opinion

Next month's annual town meetings in local towns will be postponed. Exactly when they will be rescheduled must await developments in the coming days and weeks. Moderators now have the authority to postpone or continue annual sessions; newly filed state legislation likely to be approved soon will allow selectmen to reschedule meetings as late as June 30 or even later. Last week, Chatham selectmen voted to postpone the May 11 annual meeting to an undetermined date prior to June 30 to provide “a little breathing room,” Chair Shareen Davis said. Harwich selectmen have also voted to postpone the annual town meeting, and the Orleans board is likely to do so when they next meet.

Each town has significant business scheduled to go before this year's annual meetings. Aside from the usual budgets necessary to keep municipal operations functioning, Orleans was scheduled to address the Nauset High School building project, Harwich is dealing with possibly appropriating more sewer funding, and Chatham is slated to decide once and for all on a site for a new senior center.

For those and other reasons—the health and safety of residents, chiefly—officials should schedule town meetings in late June. But these should only be “skeletal” meetings, for lack of a better term, in the sense that they should be bare-bones. Municipal operating budgets, just those needed to keep towns functional, are the only items that should be acted upon, and these by as minimal a number as allowed under existing quorums so that voters can be spread out as much as possible. While we don't know how long social distancing needs to remain in practice, it seems prudent to expect it to be necessary for at least the next few months.

Budgets are likely to undergo revision given the current situation—now is not the time, for instance, for Chatham to seek five new full-time positions—and officials should only ask voters for basic funding to keep critical services operating. Other town meeting business, including capital budgets, zoning amendments, and the major items noted above, should be postponed until at least the fall. This is especially important with the Chatham senior center decision. The very population that will turn out en force for this debate is the one that's most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Yes, seniors have waited a decade for a new senior center, and it seems cruel to yank away a final vote when it's so close. With two competing proposals—1610 Main St. in West Chatham and school land off Stepping Stones Road—the vote will draw a big crowd, or would at any other time. Many of those most interested may be too afraid to attend a large gathering so soon. We don't blame them. And given the economic situation, it's probably not a good idea to add big-ticket items like the senior center, estimated to cost about $8 million at either site, to the tax rolls. A six-month or so delay is not likely to add to the cost, which may in fact be lower than estimates due to the economic uncertainty.

Another option is to push all town meeting business to the fall—or even longer, if necessary—and have local governments deficit spend based on current budgets, another provision of the legislation currently in process. Either way, decisions like a senior center, while important, aren't worth risking the health of residents.