Voters Approve Budget To Preserve Town's Bond Rating
by Tim Wood
CHATHAM --- Despite grumblings about a
nearly 12 percent increase in the tax rate, annual town meeting voters
Monday approved operating and capital budgets that officials said would
help preserve the town's AAA bond rating.
But voters weren't exactly in a spending
mood, turning down $9.5 million for a new fire station (see separate
story), reducing funding for a new fire department ladder/pumper truck,
and appropriating only half of the money requested to buy the former
Meservey's Restaurant property in South Chatham. Two of three zoning
bylaw amendments were also turned down.
For two high-profile non-profit groups,
the news was good, however. Community preservation funding for historic
renovations to the exterior of the Chatham Orpheum Theater building was
approved, as was CPA money to renovate the St. Martin's Masonic Lodge
building, despite a plea to turn down the measure because the Masons do
not admit women.
Five hundred and sixty-five voters
completed the 38-article warrant in about five-and-a-half hours Monday
A battle over the $25,877,235 operating
budget was set up from the start with a divided board of selectmen
supporting the spending plan but the finance committee opposing it.
Fincom Chairman Kenneth Sommer said a majority of the committee members
felt the tax rating increase could be minimized by further operating
efficiencies and alternative funding sources.
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the goal
of the budget was to preserve the town's bond rating, the highest given
to municipalities, which has been in place since 2009. Most of the
expected tax rate increase for the coming fiscal year is due to
increased debt service to pay for the sewer expansion and police
department/annex buildings. That accounts for 47 cents on the tax rate,
while the operating budget increase of less than 2 percent increases the
tax rate 14 cents.
However, both are offset by the $1.8
million savings in school costs due to the first year of the Monomoy
Regional School District. That puts the actual tax rate increase at 29
cents, or about 11 percent.
To safeguard the town's bond rating,
officials recommended shifting funding for the $1 million capital budget
from free cash to the tax rate, which would add another 18 cents. That's
necessary, Goldsmith said, to build up the town's undesignated fund
reserves, which is strongly encouraged by bond rating agencies. The town
has seen its reserves dwindle from more than $2 million in 2009 to
$893,000 today, she said. Officials will be meeting with representatives
from Standard and Poor's later this month in anticipation of a June sale
of $43.9 million in bonds. If the town's bond rating is lowered, that
will mean higher interest costs.
Even with the increases, Chatham will
continue to have the lowest tax rate on the Cape and the third lowest in
the state, said Chairman of Selectmen Florence Seldin. The average
Chatham tax bill is the sixth lowest on the Cape, despite the town's
high property values, she added.
Fincom member Richard Stenberg said he
supported the budget and feared losing the high bond rating. Even a
quarter percent increase in interest would cost the town millions. “That
for me is enough of a risk to support the 2013 budget,” he said.
Steve West pointed out the town's tax rate
would be 38 percent higher than in 2008, an increase of $600 a year for
someone with a home valued at $1 million. “We need to stop spending more
than we taken in,” he said.
Selectman Sean Summers said he opposed the
budget out of concern for the growing cost of town government. He called
the projected tax rate increase “astonishing” and said the town spends
“significantly” more per capita than surrounding communities. If the
trend continues, “I guarantee there's going to be a time when this
community becomes affordable only to the wealthiest among us,” he said.
Steve Goldman said officials need to
implement a three- to five-year budget plan so increases can be forecast
better. “I don't know how I can be asked to vote for a budget for one
year without knowing the consequences for future years,” he said. Seldin
noted that developing a long-range budget is one the goals this year for
the selectmen and Goldsmith.
The operating budget passed 412 to 103.
After approving the first Monomoy Regional
School budget at $8.1 million, voters endorsed funding the capital plan
through the tax rate, a one-time departure from the policy of funding
capital purchases with free cash, Goldsmith said.
Selectmen proposed the same funding plan
for a new fire department ladder/pumper truck known as a quint. The
$850,000 one-time purchase would have added 14 cents to the tax rate.
Fire Chief Michael Ambriscoe said the vehicle was recommended in a fire
department study last year to replace a 26-year-old pumper which is
“beyond its useful life.” The quint would not only replace the pumper
but also serve as a much-needed ladder truck for the department, he
said, giving firefighters a safe way to access structures under certain
The finance committee suggested leasing
the quint instead of purchasing it outright, which Sommer said would
spread the cost over five years and lower the immediate tax rate impact.
Voters agreed, appropriating $200,000 for the first year of the lease.
Goldsmith said Tuesday leasing the quint
will add 3.5 cents to the tax rate, putting the projected tax rate
increase for fiscal 2013 at about 50 cents. The tax rate will be
approximately $4.94 per thousand, she said.
The proposal to buy the 1.36 acre former
Meservey Restaurant property at 2175 Main St. for $346,500 failed to
garner the necessary two-thirds votes needed for the land bank to borrow
half of the money. However, use of community preservation money to fund
the other half of the purchase was approved, a vote that required only a
majority. Where that leaves the acquisition was uncertain at press time.
The land bank and open space committee
began looking into buying the property, which was the subject of a bank
foreclosure, last year, said member Jack Farrell. Its undevelopment –
removal of the existing 1960s-era restaurant building and parking lot –
was seen as a way to create a forested corridor along that section of
Route 28 in South Chatham, he said, in accordance with the town's
comprehensive plan, which calls for rolling back commercial development
along the highway to neighborhood centers. The Chatham Conservation
Foundation purchased the land for $315,000 in October to prevent it from
being sold on the open market until town funds could be appropriated for
Both the selectmen and fincom opposed the
purchase. Summers said he objected to the loss of a much-needed
restaurant, as well as the process. Stenberg said the fincom had the
same concerns, especially over the expectation by the Foundation that
the town would buy the property. Some also objected to a driveway
cutting through the property to serve two residents on lots behind the
land, but Farrell said the land would be contoured so that the driveway
would not be visible.
John Sweeney warned against jeopardizing
the good relationship the town has enjoyed with the Foundation, which
holds conservation restrictions on a number of properties purchased with
land bank funds. Foundation board member David Doherty also reminded
voters that the group had purchased and held the Valley Farm property
off Barn Hill Road several years ago following a foreclosure until the
town could appropriate the funds to acquire the open space. He called
preservation of the Meservey property a “no-brainer.”
While the vote for land bank funds
received a majority of votes, 233 to 164, it was not enough to reach the
two-thirds required to borrow the money. The community preservation
funds passed on a voice vote after Farrell urged town meeting to give
the Foundation “half a bone.”
“In five years, you'll have a spectacular
site, and never even know there was a restaurant there,” he said. On
Tuesday he said he didn't know how the situation would be resolved.
With little discussion, voters agreed to
use $398,712 in community preservation funds for renovations to the
historic exterior of the Chatham Orpheum Theater building at 637 Main
St. Voters also approved $56,030 to restore the exterior of the St.
Martin's Masonic Lodge at 52 Old Harbor Rd., which was built in the
1850s as a Baptist church. Finance committee member Norma Avellar
objected because the Masons don't allow women to join the organization.
“No taxpayer who is forbidden to be a part
of an organization should be asked to pay for it,” she said.
Lodge Master Robert Denn said while women
are traditionally excluded from the fraternal organization, all men “of
good moral character” are allowed to join. He said the building is used
by many community organizations and the Masons raise money for many
local charities but is not vocal about it. Two years ago the group spent
all of its money on a new roof, he added, and now the building is in
need of further repairs.
A zoning bylaw governing sheds and
accessory buildings and structures was approved after Mary Ellen Sussman
amended it to allow sheds up to 12 feet in height; the proposed bylaw
set the height limits at 10 feet. A bylaw amendment that sought to
exempt open porches from lot coverage requirements was defeated,
however. While planning board chairman Cory Metters said the change was
proposed to encourage developers to add open porches to minimize the
boxiness of large homes, others objected because it would allow
increased lot coverage, as much as 37 percent, said Sweeney.
Rather than addressing concerns over large
homes, “I believe this actually goes in the wrong direction,” he said.
Voters also turned down a request to
change the bylaw to allow the Chatham Conservation Foundation to pursue
a pier on a lot at the end of Strong Island Road. The change would have
lifted a prohibition against piers for properties that had applied for
an amnesty from the state between 1990 and 1996. Foundation board member
Andrew Young said a pier on the group's property was destroyed in a 1991
storm and an amnesty application is pending before the state. Lifting
the prohibition in this case would simply allow the Foundation to go
through the regulatory process, he said, adding that the pier is needed
to better maintain and oversee the organization's property on Strong
But there was skepticism about the reasons
for the pier as well as the navigational viability in that location. It
was turned down on a voice vote.