Chatham Holds Historic Outdoor Town Meeting

By: Tim Wood

Moderator William Litchfield calls for a show of cards on a vote at Monday's annual town meeting. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Voters Quickly Approve Budget, Postpone Senior Center

CHATHAM – In his three-plus decades as town moderator, William Litchfield acknowledged, he's sometimes been accused of being “out in left field.”

“In fact, finally, tonight I am,” he said during Monday evening's annual town meeting, held in the outfield at Veterans Field.

With 202 mostly masked voters social distanced across the field, the town held its first-ever outdoor town meeting, acting on a slimmed-down warrant, passing operating, school, water and capital budgets while postponing other significant — and potentially controversial — measures until a planned fall special town meeting.

In typical Chatham fashion, fog drifted in and out during the 50 minute session, also, perhaps, historic in its brevity.

Postponed from May due to the pandemic, the meeting was held less than two weeks before the end of the fiscal year, allowing the town to set a budget for fiscal 2021 to keep government operating.

Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis attributed the expeditious session to the efficiency of town staff “working together under extraordinary circumstances” to consolidate articles and identify spending that could be postponed or reduced. The successful session created a template that can be used should social distancing make it necessary to hold the planned Sept. 19 special town meeting outdoors, she added.

Litchfield commended those in attendance for showing up and exercising their right to vote.

“We are obviously meeting under extraordinary circumstances,” Litchfield said. “Some things may be imperfect.” But there were few glitches. Town meeting members held up extra-large yellow voter cards so Litchfield could determine the vote visually over the wide field without having to take a count. Just 14 votes were taken during the session.

To streamline the warrant, there were no motions on several articles, and 12 were grouped into a consent calendar and approved in a single vote. Among the consent calendar articles were the $304,877 Cape Cod Tech budget; an increase in the town's childcare voucher program from $55,000 to $75,000; $150,000 for the town's other post-employment benefit trust fund; $850,000 for water main replacement; and six community preservation projects, including $500,000 for the town's affordable housing trust fund, $30,000 for an affordable housing coordinator, $15,000 for the Cape Housing Initiative, and $206,200 for repairs to the Eldredge Public Library building.

Those funds will offset $701,800 approved in a separate article for repairs to the historic downtown library; the separate article also transferred $443,600 from a 2018 appropriation for landscaping at the library to be used for building repairs. Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel said that the scope and cost of the planned repairs were lowered in the wake of the pandemic. “This alone is something we vigorously applaud,” he said.

The two most controversial items on the warrant — a decision on where to build a new $8.2 million senior center — were among the 10 articles that were postponed until September. Selectmen supported the proposal to build a council on aging facility on land donated by William Marsh at 1610 Main St. The council on aging board also backed the proposal.

A competing plan, submitted by petition and opposed by selectmen, and the COA board, proposed building a senior center on school department land on Stepping Stones Road. The finance committee opposed both measures; Daniel said the expenditure was inappropriate given the unknown financial impact of the pandemic. A $75,000 feasibility study of the Stepping Stones Road site by a working group of town officials, staff and consultants found that the plan would cost about $243,000 more to build a senior center of the same design as the building proposed for 1610 Main St. Critics said that the Monomoy Regional School Committee's decision not to give up the land, which is part of the Monomoy Regional Middle School campus, made the petition article moot. That argument and others will play out at the Sept. 19 special town meeting.

Other articles postponed until September, most filed by petition, included consolidation of waterways funds; a ban on commercial sales of single-use plastic water bottles; a policy on climate change; three amendments to the zoning bylaw; and a general bylaw amendment to officially change the name of the board of selectmen to the select board.

A petition article to adopt a residential property tax exemption was also postponed, and Seth Taylor requested that officials delay setting the tax rate until the measure can be addressed in September. Finance Director Alix Heilala said a delay is possible, but it could put the town's cash flow in jeopardy and require short-term borrowing.

“I would not know at this time what that impact would be,” she said.

The $31,826,211 operating budget, which was revised down from the original $32,733,626 figure due to the pandemic, represented a 2.85 percent increase over the current year's spending. A number of new initiatives and proposed staff positions were eliminated in order to focus on “core/critical services,” according to Town Manager Jill Goldsmith's budget summary. Voters approved the spending plan, rejecting an amendment by Seth Taylor to shave $1 million from the total. Officials typically inflate the budget by $1 million so that there will be free cash “slush money,” he said, and the pandemic is a good time to end that practice and “accept some fiscal responsibility.” Voters disagreed, however.

Voters also approved a $2,324,145 capital budget, a $9,019,089 school budget, a $3,341,617 water department budget, $500,000 for dredging, $150,000 for the town's rental assistance program, and $470,000 for renovation to the transfer station to meet federally-mandated safety and workplace improvements. The transfer station vote will be subject to a debt exemption ballot question at Thursday's annual town election.

At the conclusion of the session, Litchfield congratulated voters for doing something “that is truly extraordinary.”

“We have been having town meetings since 1712. I was not actually at the first few,” he said. “But in so far as anyone knows, we have never met outside, we have never met in a set of circumstances quite like these, and you are to be commended for your public spiritedness, your dedication to the town of Chatham, and to your community spirit.”