Down To The Wire: Special Town Meeting On New COA Monday

By: Tim Wood

Supporters of the Center for Active Living project erected a banner at the site. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM – Months of debate, PR campaigns and strategizing by both supporters and opponents of a new council on aging facility at 1610 Main St. will come down to a final vote at Monday’s special town meeting.

Discussion of the eight-article warrant begins at 6 p.m. at Monomoy Regional Middle School at 425 Crowell Rd. May’s town meeting, at which the proposal was rejected by one vote, brought out a near-record crowd, and officials expect Monday’s session to be equally well attended.

“I hope for the same or better this time,” said select board vice chair Michael Schell, who has helped lead the campaign in favor of the new 10,965-square-foot center for active living. He said he is “cautiously optimistic” of the chances of passage.

While the select board backed the $11,064,661 project 4-0 (chair Cory Metters recused himself because he owns a business across the street from the proposed location of the new facility), the finance committee last week deadlocked 3-3 over support for the measure. In May, the fincom supported the project 6-2.

COA Background

A new COA facility — initially referred to as a senior center until it was rebranded as the center for active living last year — has been discussed for more than a decade. Plans were put on hold in 2011 when a new fire station became a priority. After the COA conducted a community needs survey in 2015, the select board agreed the existing facility at 193 Stony Hill Rd. needed to be replaced, and three sites were studied between 2017 and 2020 at a cost of $305,000. Locating the facility on town-owned land on Middle Road was rejected by town meeting voters in 2019, and votes on 1610 Main St. — a 1.45-acre parcel which developer William Marsh offered to donate to the town specifically for a new COA — failed in 2021 and in May of this year. All three were supported by a majority of town meeting voters, but all failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to pass, the threshold required in order to borrow the funding. May’s vote missed by a single vote.

At this year’s May annual town election, a ballot question exempting borrowing for the project passed 624-481, convincing the select board to try one more time to get town meeting authorization to move ahead. Once again, next Monday’s vote will require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Numerous studies failed to identify any other viable town-owned site, and Marsh was the only owner who responded to a request for potential private locations. After the 2021 failed vote, officials also studied renovating the existing COA facility and building additions to the community center, but concluded that the cost would not be much lower than the 1610 proposal and would not meet the needs of the town’s seniors as well as a new facility.

Since it first went before voters in 2019, the cost of the facility has risen from $6,600,000 to the $11,064,661 on the warrant at next week’s session, a figure that includes $102,700 for additional equipment and space to add an emergency evacuation shelter in the proposal.

Proponents say the existing facility is inadequate for the COA’s programs that serve the more than 3,000 seniors in town, and assert 1610 Main St. is the best site available following several exhaustive searches. A new facility at that site will also clear the way for the Stony Hill Road site to be repurposed for affordable housing.

Opponents say the proposed building is too large, too expensive and in a poor location.


FinCom Looks At Operating Costs

The finance committee recently completed a report on “cost projections and financing capacity” which attempted to answer several questions that have been raised about the proposal, including a new facility’s operating costs, financing and savings by not making necessary upgrades to the existing COA.

“It seemed to be an integral part of the analysis,” said chair Stephen Daniel. Noting that such an analysis was absent in May, he said a fincom working group took on the task for transparency and “because voters deserve it.”

Operating costs at 1610 Main St. above the costs at the current COA facility would total $90,450, according to the finance committee’s projections. The additional costs in cleaning services, salaries and insurance would be offset by savings in electricity at the new building and other areas, and would amount to less than a penny on the tax rate. The report also noted that additional electricity costs could be offset by equipment rebates and the installation of a solar array on the new building’s roof. If approved, following construction the town will contract with the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative to install the array, Daniel said, much as it did with the annex and police station.

Salaries make up the bulk of the additional costs at $65,000. That includes existing staff plus a senior counselor approved this past May and two part-time adult day care specialists to begin in 2025, neither of which receive benefits. The following year, salaries will include a full-time adult day care employee at $59,000 plus benefits and a part-time employee with no benefits.

The fincom report also suggests a new facility will avoid between $490,000 and $590,000 in repairs and equipment replacement costs, including a new elevator, at the current COA facility.

The fincom’s report did not include the impact of a warming center on the operating costs of the facility.

The finance committee report also touches on the issue of the town’s debt, noting that Chatham has more than $90 million in outstanding debt and another $85 million in authorized but unissued debt, for a total of $175 million. More than half of that is related to wastewater infrastructure and was issued at zero percent interest through the state Clean Water Trust. The town’s policies limit debt to less than 5 percent of the town’s total property valuation, which, at more than $8 billion, would allow up to $438 million in debt. That leaves “more than ample room” for the debt associated with the CFAL, although the report cautions about the potential for “financial wildcards,” such as the $25 million in recent unanticipated spending to remediate PFAS contamination in two town wells. Potential changes to acceptable PFAS levels could have further cost implications, according to the report.

According to the warrant explanation, a 20-year bond for the full $11,064,661 figure at 5 percent interest would have an initial 9 cent impact on the tax rate, diminishing annually thereafter to 4 cents in the final year. The first-year impact on a home valued at $500,000 would be $47.65; a home valued at the current average value of $1.2 million would be $114.36, while a home valued at $2 million would see a tax bill increase of $190.61. The amounts would diminish over the duration of the borrowing.

“We’re not taking a position on whether these are good numbers or not; people can make their own assessments,” Daniel said. “We felt it was important to get the numbers out there.” The report also notes that the Friends of the Council on Aging have pledged to raise $1 million toward the cost of the new facility.

When the fincom met Friday to take a position on the warrant articles, the vote on the COA ended up tied. Norma Avellar opposed the measure because she felt officials were ignoring the will of the voters as expressed in the previous votes. She called for remodeling the current COA facility and criticized linking 1610 to housing at 193 Stony Hill Rd.

“We own the building, we own the property, why are we going somewhere else, spending money that we don’t need to spend, and then having the nerve to put that on the back of affordable housing?” she said. “No, no, no.”

Daniel voted to support the proposal. While the town needs a new COA building, he said the process over the past few months has “not been this town’s best moment. I think it’s been divisive.” But, he added, “We will eventually get this building, and…if we don’t do it now, it’s going to be [$13 million or $15 million] or something sometime in the future.”

Vandalism Of Opposition Signs

Signs opposing the new facility have popped up around town in the past week, including on the property immediately adjacent to 1610 Main St., where a large sign supporting the proposal was erected by Team 1610-193, the group supporting the proposal.

However, almost a half dozen of the opponents’ signs have been stolen or vandalized over the past week. Police are keeping an eye on the signs and urge the perpetrators to respect private property.

It’s a bad look for the community,” said Chief of Police Michael Anderson. “I would urge any involved individuals just to please stop and make your voices heard at the town meeting, as opposed to acts of vandalism.” He urged anyone with information on the vandalism to come forward.

Other than a large banner sign at 1610 Main St., proponents of the project did not put out any signs, said Schell, who condemned the vandalism.

We certainly don’t endorse it and wish it wouldn’t happen,” he said.

David Mott, an opponent of 1610, said he was disappointed that the signs are being stolen or damaged, just as they were before May’s annual town meeting.

I see it as a deliberate attempt to influence the vote and most importantly, it is illegal,” he said in an email. “Regardless of what side you’re on, the recurrent theft and vandalism of political signs should be viewed as unacceptable. Unlike the group in favor of a COA at 1610, we don’t have a professional PR firm, unlimited funds, multiple social media sites, or town staff at our call. Our method of soliciting support is truly a grassroots effort and we expect that those who disagree would at the very least stay on the high ground instead of reverting to such low handed behavior.”

Team 1610-193 has taken newspaper ads, made phone calls and sent emails to drum up support for the new COA facility. An open letter to residents sent Monday runs down reasons to support the proposal, and noting that the previous measure failed by one vote, urged voters to “be the one” to push the count past the two-thirds mark.

Related Warrant Articles

Several other related articles are on the warrant along with funding for a new COA facility. Article 7 seeks to declare the current COA site on Stony Hill Road surplus, with Article 8 asking voters to appropriate $75,000 for design and engineering for housing at the location. Both are contingent on passage of funding for a new CFAL.

There are several other housekeeping items on the warrant, including paying prior year bills, budget transfers and adjustments, rescinding borrowing on two completed projects, and using $1.3 million in the wastewater capital stabilization fund to cover a portion of the cost of a new belt filter press at the sewer treatment plant.

Heavy Attendance Expected

Attendance at the meeting is expected to be heavy. Moderator William Litchfield said the town is renting additional hand-held voting “clickers” to ensure there are enough for a turnout of up to 1,100 people.

He also urged voters to arrive early so that the meeting can begin promptly at 6 p.m. Voters are asked to enter the school lobby to queue up at a check-in station. Check-in begins at 4:45 p.m.

Parking is available not only at the school, but also at the lot on Stepping Stones Road and the department of public works on Crowell Road. CERT volunteers will be available to shuttle folks by golf cart or ATV to the school from the DPW lot. There is no parking on the west side of Crowell Road.

Transportation is also available for those who cannot drive by appointment. Call the CFAL at 508-945-5190 to reserve a seat by noon on Sept. 18.

Childcare for kids ages 3 and up is also available by reservation. Email Susan Mabile with your name, address, contact phone number, your child's name, age, and any medical issues no later than noon on Friday, Sept. 15. Drop off begins at 5 p.m. in the middle school library.