IT'S TIME TO END CHATHAM'S EXTRAVAGANT SPENDING
Chatham's rich flow of property tax revenues from second home owners -- who impose little in the way of extra costs on the town -- has enabled Town government to maintain a expensive lifestyle much more than it has kept property taxes low for resident taxpayers.
The fruits of this expensive lifestyle of Town government show up principally in two ways: extravagant building projects and unsustainable compensation arrangements with public unions.
The 22,000 square foot underutilized $10 million community center and the $17 million 40,000 square foot Town Hall annex to house a handful of town employees during working hours are current examples.
The most extravagant of all is just being launched now: a 100% townwide sewer system costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Everyone agrees that the chemical pollution of our ponds and embayments should be halted, but not everyone agrees such a massive undertaking is the only answer.
A review of the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan does not yield convincing evidence that cost-effective alternatives, particularly those employing newer technologies, were -- or are being -- seriously considered.
Our neighboring town of Orleans, also considering a large sewer system, has engaged a third-party consultant to conduct a cost-effective analysis of its sewer plan and has already learned that a major part of the proposed system may not be needed at all. This process is ongoing under the auspices of a special citizen Wastewater Management Validation & Design Committee.
This peer review is being conducted by the Woods Hole Group, an environmental organization respected worldwide, that Chatham has employed in the past. Orleans is also monitoring the kinds of alternatives under review at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to save water and lessen the need for wastewater infrastructure.
Chatham should do the same. Spending on this project will stretch out over at least 20 years, so there will be plenty of opportunity to adopt new possibilities and save many millions of taxpayer dollars in doing so. Even Democratic Cape legislator Representative Matt Patrick thinks this can be done and it would be irresponsible not to explore every option.
The other area in which the Town government displays its extravagance is in staffing and compensation of personnel. In this regard, Chatham is not alone. Chatham, like many other cities and towns, is in the grip of public service unions whose contract demands relentlessly push up costs beyond what would be reasonable in the private sector. Iron-clad contracts are signed with unions promising compensation and benefits come hell or high water, regardless of economics or revenues or the interests of those who pay the bills.
These outmoded arrangements are finally getting national and state attention and need to be addressed at the local level as well. Chatham has several collective bargaining agreements, the principal ones being for school teachers, the police department and the fire department. The police contract has expired and is in negotiation, the fire department contract is in the second year (FY10) of a three-year contract and the schools contract ends in FY11.
The time to seek dramatic change at the town level has arrived. New union contracts cannot continue the rich promises of increases and benefits of the past. Cities and towns across the nation are looking for multi-year freezes in union contracts, merit increases based on performance instead of automatic income step increases, elimination of various benefits and shifting from pension plans to defined contribution plans.
This unacceptable situation was addressed by David Luberoff of Harvard's Rappaport Center recently:
[H]ealth insurance [cost] is just the tip of the iceberg. The high cost of fully funding pensions and other postretirement benefits will continue to stress local budgets. Local officials’ ability to make needed changes are greatly limited by an outdated civil service system that bases promotions on test-taking and collective bargaining agreements that make it easy to challenge any changes to existing routines. Why, for example, does every town need its own emergency dispatch system? Why do many localities have separate systems for police, fire, and emergency services? Yet any effort to change these practices runs into a host of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Local officials are not blameless. State law, for example, gives them the power to greatly lower health insurance costs by requiring retirees to enroll in Medicare, a federally funded program. But many localities have not yet taken advantage of this option, not least because of resistance from retirees.
Such changes are hard to achieve because relatively small groups of individuals strongly oppose them. But the status quo may not be an option.
Costs are going to keep rising, revenues will remain flat, and the demand for services will not decline. Local policy makers, therefore, will have no choice but to reexamine longstanding practices and assumptions.
The Town of Chatham did not come to grips with this unsustainable situation in its FY10 spending plan, granting salary increases of approximately 6% across the board when local taxpayers were experiencing devastating losses in their life saving and reductions in their incomes. There is a severe disconnect from reality when public employees are receiving such large pay increases when on average they already earn more than half the households in Chatham live on.
Chatham taxpayers area facing sharp increases in property taxes because of the debt service costs of extravagant infrastructure projects. It is therefore all the more urgent to hold the line on property taxes for all other Town spending. No increases in the property tax levy for FY11.