Issues Financial And Otherwise Addressed In Cape's Longest-running Summer Town Meeting

By: Tim Wood

Emergency dredging of this shoal near the North Inlet in Chatham Harbor was one of numerous topics discussed at Tuesday's 72nd summer town meeting.  SPENCER KENNARD PHOTO / www.capecodphotos.com

CHATHAM – The town continued its 72-year tradition of summer town meetings Tuesday, with more than 65 summer folks getting a two-hour run-down on the state of the community from selectmen and other town officials.

The litany of details provided to non-resident taxpayers included the financial condition of the community, an overview of projects and issues officials have dealt with in the past year and expect to deal with in the coming months, a review of the dredging and navigation situation, and the annual “Chatham Scorecard” presented by the summer residents advisory committee, which has sponsored the annual unofficial town meeting for the past 21 years.

Chatham began the informal summer sessions to hear the concerns of seasonal residents shortly after World War II, said Town Moderator William Litchfield, who also moderated Tuesday evening's meeting held at the town hall annex. “That developed into a long-standing, and I think positive, dialog between town officials and summer residents,” he said. Chatham remains the only Cape town with an official committee composed completely of non-residents; the 12-member summer residents advisory committee, or SRAC, is appointed by selectmen and meets most Fridays at 9 a.m. from late June to the end of August to discuss issues, conduct research and generate position papers on major issues, said Chairman Collete Trailor.

The group is currently looking into such issues as the proposal for a new council on aging building, the methodology for prioritizing capital improvement projects and changes to the waterways regulations, she said.

“We have many more topics we have been researching very, very diligently,” she said. The summer town meeting is the culmination of the committee's activities and is held for the benefit of nonresident and residents alike, said Trailor. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the SRAC is part of a “strong partnership” with the board of selectmen, department heads and town staff, and the group's “perspective and recommendations we to take to heart.”

For the past dozen years a highlight of the summer meeting has been the “Chatham Scorecard,” a synopsis of the town's financial condition and a comparison of fiscal metrics with those of other Cape towns.

“This is the fun part of the meeting,” said committee member Jamie Meehan prior to delivering the scorecard, which looked at the 2013 to 2018 fiscal years. The numbers show summer residents have “ample reason to be pleased with the financial condition of the town.”

During the past five years, the town's assessed value has grown by 17 percent to $6.8 billion. “Certainly we've recovered from the Great Depression,” Meehan said. The average assessed value of a home in town is $916,000, second only to Provincetown and significantly higher than the Cape average, he said.

The current tax rate of $4.87 – projected to rise by 17 cents to $5.04 for fiscal 2019, according to Finance Director Alix Heilala – is 3 percent lower than it was five years ago, and is the lowest of any town on the Cape. The next lowest is Dennis at $6.34, said Meehan.

“I think that's pretty impressive,” he said.

Chatham is the only Cape town to see its residential tax rate decrease in the past five years; all other towns saw tax rates go up between 4 and more than 20 percent. The average tax bill is $4,462, about in the middle of all Cape towns; it's gone up 14 percent since five years ago, one of the lowest increases among Cape towns.

With a new fire station and recent investments in the wastewater treatment plant and the regional school system, Chatham has “the most modern infrastructure of any Cape town,” Meehan said.

“The committee believes Chatham will be able to fund existing and future debt without substantial increases in taxes,” he said, adding that the town is fortunate to have “an able board of selectmen, a competent town manager and finance director, and a dedicated and capable workforce.”

Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro reviewed several ongoing issues the board is dealing with, including the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge western boundary dispute, on which selectmen will hear an update next Monday. He also gave a brief overview of the Route 28 West Chatham Roadway Project, which is now in the bidding phase. A contractor should be selected soon, he said, and the project given the green light in October. A pre-construction meeting will be held in the fall for the state department of transportation and the contractor to provide an overview of the schedule and impacts of the $4 million project.

The town's shoreline and coastal systems have undergone significant changes in the past year, said Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon. He reviewed changes to the inlets along the eastern coast, reshaped largely by a series of winter nor'easters, and outlined plans to obtain emergency dredging approval to dredge shoals inside the North Inlet that have created a dangerous situation for boats, including commercial fishermen and the Coast Guard. Because of the approach vessels must take to the inlet, fishing boat operators have a hard time seeing other boats in the channel, he said. In at least one case, the Coast Guard could not respond to a distress call due to the shoaling, leaving the harbormaster's department to respond instead.

Dredging will “remove some of the safety issues during the main boating season, particularly for the fishing fleet and the Coast Guard,” Keon said, but it won't be inexpensive and won't be a permanent solution. However, it will buy time for the town to work toward a longer-term solution. The town recently received a $182,000 state Coastal Resiliency Grant to study shoreline and waterways issues from Chatham Harbor to Pleasant Bay.

Keon was scheduled to meet Wednesday with the conservation commission, which was slated to vote on approving the emergency dredging. Nicastro said selectmen will hold a special meeting next Wednesday, Aug. 15, for an update on the status of the emergency dredging application.

One summer resident, noting that seasonal folks are blamed for increases in water consumption, pleaded to “tone down the rhetoric” and asked what was being done to address the long-term water supply situation. With the completion of a new water treatment plant, well number six is back online, said Public Works Director Tom Temple, providing an additional one million gallons a day. Two more wells will go online in September. While pumping has averaged about 12 percent higher this summer than last, it's still behind two years ago, when water usage jumped substantially, he said.

“This is a pretty hot summer and we're still pumping less than we were two years ago,” he said.

Finally, Peter Beckwith thanked Park and Recreation Director Dan Tobin for installing diaper changing stations in the restrooms at Harding's Beach. Beckwith said after seeing numerous parents changing their babies' diapers on the beach because of the lack of changing stations in the rest rooms, he called Tobin and within 10 days the changing tables were installed. He then asked if Tobin could take care of the poor placement of hand dryers in the men's room.