Draft $35.2M Chatham Budget Envisions Post-COVID Operations

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

Budget and finance.

CHATHAM — It remains to be seen what the post-pandemic “new normal” means, but from a fiscal perspective, it’s about restoring deferred spending. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith presented her fiscal 2023 town budget to the select board for consideration last week; the balanced spending plan includes seven new full-time equivalent positions in various departments. When COVID-19 emerged in March 2020, there were just three months remaining in fiscal year 2021. “We cut our budget substantially” and pivoted to a very conservative spending plan that remains in place in the current fiscal year, 2022, she said. “The financial planning for both the fiscal year ‘21 and ‘22 budgets have worked really well to build our financial reserves and our social resources,” Goldsmith told the board Jan. 18. With those strong reserves, very high property values and a AAA bond rating, Finance Director Alix Heilala said the fiscal 2023 budget is “moving toward what we had presented in FY21 originally, a level-services growth budget.” Before the pandemic, town department heads had asked for 14 additional positions to meet increased workloads, demands for service or regulatory requirements. Because of COVID, none of the requests were funded. “But the demands have not subsided in that time,” Heilala said. Goldsmith’s proposed operating budget stands at $35,216,382, an increase of $2.17 million over this year’s spending plan. While some of the new expense is related to big-ticket purchases moved from the capital plan into the operating budget and predictable increases, about $435,000 of the increase is related to new staffing. The new full-time positions are part of a realignment of some employees designed to increase efficiency and to take advantage of the departure of some key staff. New in the budget is an additional Channel 18 media assistant, $92,686 to fund a new housing and sustainability director, funds for two new firefighters and a part-time secretary for the fire department, a full-time assistant conservation agent, funds to make the half-time health inspector full-time, and a new laborer for the DPW. The town has also increased the pay rates for seasonal employees “to maintain the ability to hire quality seasonal workers here in Chatham,” Heilala said. Board member Shareen Davis asked how the town plans to be competitive with other Cape towns when it comes to filling open positions. Goldsmith said the town has lost a couple of employees because their pay range was too low. Around the Cape, many towns have vacant leadership positions and have had trouble recruiting replacements. “It’s the ‘great resignation.’ It’s the ‘great retirement.’ And I think we’re seeing it Cape-wide,” Goldsmith said. The biggest challenge is in hiring laborers and groundskeeper positions, “the hardest ones to fill,” she said. For many potential workers, the problem is housing, Board Chair Peter Cocolis said. Importing workers from off-Cape costs more, and while there are creative ways to lure them here – and the Cape’s natural allure helps – “they have to be able to afford to live here,” he said. The spending plan includes a water department budget increase of 32 percent, funded entirely by water receipts; an 18 percent drop in the capital budget as big-ticket items have been isolated as stand-alone warrant articles; and Community Preservation Act and other articles up almost $1.5 million. The town’s assessment to the Monomoy Regional School District is up (see related story), and the proposed “alternative assessment” that would have each town pay to operate its own elementary school would see Chatham paying about $800,000 more than before. The increase was previously estimated to be around $600,000. Select board member Jeffrey Dykens says that while he continues to be a strong supporter of the school system, the unexpected increase deserves more scrutiny. The town’s assessment to Cape Tech is up 1.97 percent, reflecting the fact that Chatham will be sending 12 students to the regional vocational school, instead of the three sent this year. The select board’s final budget will be formally sent to the finance committee by March 1. The warrant for the May 14 annual town meeting closes on March 24.