Planning In A Pandemic: Selectmen Discuss Goals For Coming Year

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance , COVID-19

Chatham seal.

CHATHAM — Each year, selectmen and the town manager begin the process of creating a budget by setting their goals and objectives, meeting in a special Saturday session. This year’s session yielded a list of priorities shaped in part by the pandemic.

“Seeing that COVID-19 was impacting a lot of our ability to move forward with our work that we had been thinking about doing, we did review our established mission and value statements,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said at last week’s board meeting. The nine value statements express the need to protect the town’s finances, schools, environment and operational efficiency, while supporting “demographic diversity by addressing the unique needs of younger and senior populations.”

In their mission statement, selectmen and the town manager pledged to “pursue collaborative processes, ethical, and professional procedures to ensure town resources are directed to providing the best services possible to protect public safety, public assets and a special quality of life in Chatham.”

The goals for the next calendar year and fiscal 2022 are divided into eight categories, and board members listed their goals on worksheets which were reviewed and discussed, then color-coded to mark progress on each objective.

In the area of finance, town officials pledged to monitor the effects of the pandemic on town operations, businesses and residents. They will now be receiving biweekly updates on tax revenues and COVID-19 expenses, and quarterly updates from the chamber and merchants’ association to gauge impacts on businesses. While they initially considered having staff create a resource list for residents in need, “we didn’t want to be duplicating effort,” Davis said. The town will also look for new opportunities for cost-sharing partnerships with other towns in the area, and will explore potential new revenue sources, including paid downtown parking.

When it comes to big-ticket spending, including the new $8.2 million senior center proposed for 1610 Main St., selectmen are moving cautiously. Given the fiscal uncertainty, selectmen decided to study whether to seek design funding separately from the construction costs, in a phased approach. The board acknowledges that “even though this approach may be costly in the end, we wanted to move cautiously during these uncertain economic times,” Davis said. The proposed senior center preliminary design will also be revisited in response to the pandemic, she added.

The restoration of a building at the Eldredge Garage property remains a goal, but the project might not go before voters in the spring.

“We were hesitant to bring too many projects to town meeting,” Davis said. The pandemic is prompting an effort to prioritize the list of capital projects. “Some of the projects are necessary for safety reasons, like the [renovations at the] transfer station, while others provide economic opportunity,” she said. The board plans to meet this month to prioritize those projects.

Figuring prominently in the list of goals is increasing the availability of affordable housing and “attainable” units for those who earn too much money to qualify for subsidies. That will require seeking special legislation to allow the use of Community Preservation Act funds for attainable housing and creating a new attainable housing trust fund that can accept those monies, as well as private donations. By the end of this month, selectmen will receive an update from town staff and the housing consultant about potential locations for new housing developments.

Under the category of “environmental and historic quality of the town,” selectmen set a goal of better understanding the short-term rental market and its impact on the community. They plan to dedicate a board meeting to examine the number of summer rentals, the number and types of complaints town officials receive about them, the tax revenue they generate, and how other towns are regulating them.

The board also hopes to consider long-term strategies for shark and seal safety, preferably by working with neighboring towns.

“We’re seeing at the fish pier, the seals there being more emboldened,” Davis said. “So we’re keeping an eye on possible solutions to any issues that may arise.”

Selectmen plan to actively recruit volunteers to fill committee vacancies and to train committee members to operate their meetings remotely. They will also be revisiting the steps they took this year to make their own meetings more efficient.

In a bid to improve communication, selectmen set the goal of expanding opportunities for public feedback on projects. A policy may be adopted “which would require a public forum if a project met certain criteria,” she said. The board also plans to direct the town manager to develop a social media policy for the town by February 2022.