FinCom Proposes ‘Social Infrastructure Initiative’ To Provide Modest Financial Support To Local Nonprofits

by Tim Wood

CHATHAM – Is “social infrastructure,” embodied by non-profit groups like the Chatham Garden Club and Friends of Trees, worth supporting with taxpayer money?

Members of the finance committee think so.

In its town meeting budget message, the group proposes a “social infrastructure initiative,” whereby the town would provide funding for non-profit organizations that provide a benefit to the town as a whole.

“It’s visibly impactful what these men and women are doing,” said chair Stephen Daniel, noting the work of the garden club, Friends of Trees, Friends of Chatham Waterways, Friends of Sylvan Gardens, among other nonprofits. “Sometimes you don’t even think about it when you see the flowers at town hall or the landscaping at intersections.”

The fincom uses the garden club as an example of the benefits private non-profits provide to the community. The volunteer club takes care of 11 “gardens” around town, including at Oyster Pond, the fish pier, Sears Park, Ryder’s Cove, Chatham Lighthouse and the town offices. Just at the two gardens at Oyster Pond, volunteers put in more than 140 hours of work, and the club paid for the landscape and other materials.

The state uses a rate of $39.19 an hour to calculate the value of volunteer or donated time. Using that figure, the garden club’s work at Oyster Pond alone was worth more than $5,500.

Daniel said after the fincom met Bette Hahner of the garden club, he was struck by the fragility of the group’s resources. “They rely entirely on donations,” he said. Fincom members began asking around and found that other, similar groups operate in the same manner.

“It was a short jump from there to why can’t we provide these guys with some means of funding,” he said.

The town already provides money to private organizations and initiatives. The community preservation committee has funded a number of private historical restoration and housing projects, and each year the town’s human services committee reviews applications from non-profit groups that provide resources to Chatham residents and recommends which should be included in the human services budget.

“We already know who these groups are,” Daniel said of the service organizations that contribute to the community, “which in a sense makes it easier.”

The town also expends public money on growing shellfish that everyone with a shellfish license can access, as well as town facilities such as the fish pier, airport and beaches that benefit the entire community, he noted. Monday’s town meeting also addressed establishing a revolving fund to support planting trees, he added.

If groups are spending their own money to benefit the public, it makes sense to provide a small supplement from the town, Daniel said. The fincom’s description of the proposed “social infrastructure initiative” suggests a “modest” annual budget allocation for the qualified Chatham-based non-profit organizations which provide “a clear and measurable operational benefit to the town of Chatham and its operations.” The funds could come from local tax receipts, such as the occupancy tax, or the short-term rental tax. The process should be simple, perhaps requiring an application and review by a staff member, with the town manager and select board making recommendations, he said.

“It shouldn’t be that hard,” he said. Some communities — he cited Jackson Hole, Wyo. — have passed small tax surcharges to fund similar programs.

Daniel planned to mention the proposal at town meeting to gauge support.