COVID-19 Prompts Deep Spending Cuts
CHATHAM — Thanks to the pandemic, voters at the annual town meeting scheduled for June 22 will likely see some extreme social distancing, along with a warrant stripped down of big-ticket spending articles and a sobering town budget.
Selectmen chose the new date for town meeting on Monday, but a provision is in place that allows the town moderator to postpone the session for up to 30 days at a time if concerns remain about the ability to provide adequate social distancing for attendees. But at least provisionally, the meeting will be held on June 22 at 6 p.m. at the Monomoy Middle School gym.
The warrant, which initially included about 55 articles, has been reduced to 39 action items, with the remaining measures pushed off to a special town meeting in late summer or in the fall. Among the removed items were a $4.5 million package of stormwater improvements, a dozen Community Preservation Act projects not related to affordable housing, and creation of a $1.7 million capital stabilization fund.
Lacking the legal authority to remove them from the warrant, selectmen retained a series of articles submitted by initiative petition, including one that seeks to locate a new senior center on a parcel of land on Stepping Stones Road. The proposal competes with a plan favored by selectmen to build the facility at 1610 Main St., West Chatham, which will remain on the warrant though selectmen have pledged not to take action on it until a later special town meeting.
Selectman Dean Nicastro said it is prudent to keep 1610 Main St. on the warrant, since it would be possible for a citizen to call for a vote on the competing Stepping Stones Road location, even though some of the petitioners have said they would rather wait for a vote at a fall special town meeting. Keeping both articles on the warrant—and seeking to postpone action on both—is the best way to ensure an “even playing field” for the two proposals when they are ultimately considered by voters, board member Cory Metters said.
A number of the spending articles that were kept on the warrant have been reduced in scope. The town’s five-year capital plan was reduced from $2.88 million to $2.44 million, with a number of big-ticket purchases being deferred. And notably, the planned $4.31 million renovation and reconstruction of the transfer station and recycling center has been put on hold, though voters will be asked to spend up to $470,000 to make safety improvements to comply with new OSHA requirements.
Still being pared down is the revised operating budget, which selectmen expect to consider next week. Finance Director Alix Heilala previously presented the board with various scenarios in case the town should see local receipts drop to 80 percent, 75 percent and 50 percent of current levels. This week, Heilala said she reviewed town finances following the last recession, and her best estimate is that local receipts will drop to 53 percent because of the financial uncertainties caused by the pandemic.
“This could last up to the next two fiscal years,” she said. Heilala presented a plan for a balanced budget that reduces the spending plan by $3,353,972, cutting $451,772 from the operating budget, as well as monies from the capital budget, the other post-employment benefits (OPEB) trust fund, and non-essential repairs to the Eldredge Public Library. The budget also forgoes $1.7 million reserved for a new capital stabilization fund. Additional cuts are being identified daily, she said. Also removed from the operating budget were all proposed new employee positions, providing savings of $245,000.
“We’re trying to be extremely conservative,” Heilala said, in part because the estimated receipts in the fiscal 2021 budget will also help shape the following year’s spending plan.
To keep from having to cut services, the budget relies on using excess levy capacity—the amount of property tax revenue the town is allowed to raise under Proposition 2½ but chooses not to spend. Hopefully, the town will not need to spend up to the allowable limit, Heilala said.
“We’ve never taxed to the maximum,” and don’t want to do so during the emergency, she said. “We know that people are hurting.”