Officials Hope For Quick Town Meeting

By: William F. Galvin

The Harwich Town Seal was designed by local artist Charles D. Cahoon in 1896. It misrepresents the type of dwelling Wampanoag people lived in.

HARWICH — Voters will gather in two weeks at the Monomoy High School turf field for the FY2021 annual town meeting.

The session is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26 at 10 a.m., with a rain date of Sunday, Sept. 27 at 1 p.m. Attendees will face a warrant containing 46 articles, reduced from the 56 articles slated to be addressed last May, when the meeting was postponed due to the pandemic.

Given the pandemic conditions, several adjustments have been made to expedite the town meeting yet still address the business of the town, including setting the annual budget. Those steps include putting off articles not deemed essential and those that could potentially draw long debate.

Financial issues will be a focus, with the proposed town budget showing a shortfall of approximately $575,000. The finance committee proposed an article seeking use of that amount from the town’s stabilization fund, a rainy day account, to close the gap. The article has the endorsement of selectmen.

The warrant contains a lengthy explanation of the shortfall, noting several challenges during the past year. They include a tractor trailer truck rollover in Harwich Port last July, spilling thousands of gallons of gasoline, affecting local residents and shutting down area businesses; the July 23 tornado and the lengthy clean up process behind the twister, which took down thousands of trees across the town; and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Selectmen committed to keeping the FY2021 budget at or below 2½ percent of the preceding budget, according to the explanation in the warrant. But with lower than expected revenues, including an 11 percent reduction in receipts, departments were asked to lower budget requests. The board agreed raising taxes and fees was not the way to go during the pandemic year.

“As the board of selectmen prepare the annual town meeting warrant to meet FY2021 needs of the town of Harwich, they too are looking at reserves the town has built over the years. This article proposes to use some funds from the stabilization account to support specific items removed from the town operation budget,” the explanation reads. The use of $574,171 in stabilization funds received unanimous support from both the selectmen and the finance committee.

The town’s annual operating budget is seeking $39,140,073. The Monomoy Regional School District assessment seeks $26,960,046. Selectmen did not make a recommendation on the school budget (see related story) and will do so at town meeting, according to the warrant. The finance committee also made no recommendation in on the school budget, saying it needed further information.

Other budget requests include $4,291,075 for the water department; $1,737,789 for Cape Tech; and $272,932 for the wastewater/sewer department. Selectmen and finance committee endorsed those requests. With the sewer system a year away from planned hookup with the Chatham treatment plant, there was discussion by selectmen about the potential for transferring some of those funds to address other budget needs.

Selectmen and finance committee approved the FY2021 capital plan, which includes 18 items and totals $4,202,852, offset by $700,000 in Chapter 90 funds and a FEMA grant for air packs for the fire department (see story, page 17). Fire Chief David LeBlanc has also agreed to remove the quint fire apparatus from the capital plan this year, which reduces the plan by $1.1 million.

The more expensive items in the plan for this year are the Harwich community playground at $500,000; Whitehouse Field Lighting at $380,000; fire department ambulance at $378,225; affordable housing trust at $250,000; catch basin cleaner at $215,000; and the rental assistance program at $200,000.

The road maintenance program, which in recent years received $1.4 million mostly covered by Chapter 90 state aid funds, is seeking only $350,000 in the capital funding this year. Last year, a debt exclusion ballot vote turned aside $700,000 as the town’s share of the program.

There are a few articles likely to draw debate. Voters will be asked to approve a zoning amendment that to create a West Harwich Special District, implementing provisions for a District of Critical Planning Concern along Route 28 from the Herring River to the Dennis town line. There is also a zoning amendment that would clean up language in the town’s multi-family zoning provisions and assist in the creation of more multi-family residences in town.

There are several articles seeking Community Preservation Act funds, including four identified in the capital plan: the community playground, Whitehouse Field lighting, affordable housing trust, and rental assistance. Funds are also sought for a Brooks Park fencing project and a Pine Grove Cemetery gravestone conservation project.

There are also a few petitioned articles likely to draw some debate, including one on climate change. The proposal is identified as a bylaw, but Robin Lord, a spokesperson for the petitioners, told selectmen the proponents are seeking to change the article to a resolution on town meeting floor. The finance committee has recommended indefinite postponement and selectmen have yet to take any action.

Another article seeks to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles under one-gallon in size. Another seeks to rescind provisions approved last year prohibiting the sale of plastic water bottles on town properties. The finance committee has recommended indefinite postponement of both articles. The selectmen supported the ban on single-use plastic water bottles, but took no action on the article seeking to rescind the use on town property bylaw approved a year ago.

In an effort to keep the warrant short and not generate a lot of debate, selectmen voted last week not to include an amendment to the town’s wetlands protection bylaw submitted by the conservation commission. Conservation Administrator Amy Usowski said the commission has been working on the amendment since last winter with the intention of having an article in last spring’s town meeting.

The amendment is designed to clarify language and eliminate redundancy, Usowski said. It also would reduce the size of wetlands regulated under the bylaw from 3,000 square feet to 500 square feet and increase the “no build” buffer zone from 50 to 60 feet. Sensing the potential for serious debate, selectmen agreed the article should be held for nine months and placed before voters next May. That was also the case with an article presented by the cemetery commission seeking amendments to its rules and regulations.

The selectmen are also considering packaging non-controversial articles into a consent agenda as a means of expediting the meeting.