Revenue Researchers Engage Citizens At Forum

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

News

ORLEANS About 50 people came to the senior center March 1 to find out more about the revenue committee's proposals to pay for town operations such as the beaches and the transfer station out of their own dedicated income streams.

At the Orleans Citizens Forum event, committee member Paul Kelleher presented research that showed, compared to equal Cape communities, the town has the highest percentage of property taxes and the lowest percentage of user fees. With the cost of town operations rising annually and necessary capital improvements standing by, options are needed.

Given that existing user fees do not cover the full costs, direct (salaries) and indirect (benefits, etc.), of the beaches and the transfer station, the committee suggests the town create enterprise funds dedicated solely to such uses, and that fees be adjusted accordingly. Those changes would require town meeting approval.

The committee found also that, compared to comparable towns, Orleans lags in attracting grant support. “It was kind of a shocker to us,” Kelleher said. The revenue board is recommending that exploration of grant possibilities be incorporated formally into the budget process.

Admitting that town comparisons could be inexact - two used in the study, Chatham and Provincetown, have airports that could account for a higher number of grants – Kelleher said the trends required action.

“Business as usual is not sustainable,” he said, and delaying capital expenditures would ensure higher costs for projects. The committee is circulating petitions to get the first three of its articles on the town meeting warrant in May, either by the board of selectmen agreeing to their inclusion or by additional voter signatures.

The first article would revise the town's user fee to eliminate a 5 percent cap and allow selectmen to raise fees annually until all costs of an operation are fully recovered. This would be followed by articles allowing the establishment of enterprise funds. A two-thirds majority would be needed at town meeting.

Setting up the enterprise funds doesn't require the town to recover full costs, Kelleher noted. “They allow it to do so. There would be an annual review and reset.”

Asked who'd do the reviewing, Kelleher said, “committees, departments, the board of selectmen, the fiance committee, and a town meeting vote.”

If the first three articles are approved in May, actual enterprise funds for the beaches and transfer station could be voted into existence by the May 2018 town meeting. The committee would like the town to spend the year before that tracking expenses as if they were part of an enterprise fund.

“The revenue committee is not recommending raising user fees,” Kelleher said. “We want policies established to enable (better) decisions.” With greater cost transparency for a service, he said, “everyone will know where there are deficits. Then the political process people can decide.”

The leadership of the Orleans Citizens Forum had invited finance committee chair Marilyn Bruneau and Selectman Alan McClennen to comment. Bruneau said the first three proposed town meeting articles “look like a step in the right direction,” but she cautioned against a “people should pay for what they use” policy going forward. “That may apply to the beaches and the transfer station,” she said, “but what about the landings, the roads, the schools, the libraries? We don't want to see tollgates at every landing. We want to keep this town open and have people come her and enjoy it as much as we love it.”

McClennen noted that state regulations limit enterprise funds to utilities, health care, recreation, and transportation services. “It can't apply everywhere,” he said. As for non-tax support for town activities, he said that between 2005 and 2010 Orleans acquired $7.5 million worth of real estate, a third of it from grants and another third from donations.

Upcoming Orleans Citizens Forum events include a candidates night at Nauset Regional Middle School April 19, a department of public works update at the senior center on May 3, and a quality of life expo at the middle school May 6 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. featuring volunteering information from cultural and other non-profit organizations. The members-only meeting will be May 18 at the senior center.