ORLEANS — Decades ago, Massachusetts voters capped municipal budget increases at 2½ percent, plus new growth. With costs such as health benefits growing at three or four times that level, communities have looked to fees to make up some of the difference.
“In 1990, the ability to raise revenues just by raising the tax rate stopped,” Selectman Alan McClennen said Sept. 20. “The whole idea of fees came up. Now my grandkids are paying X dollars to play on a public team. Our job is to lay all the options on the table and have a really meaningful discussion about who pays for what and when.”
To Selectman Mark Mathison, it's a question of “what we think the town of Orleans owes to its citizens. What does the town have an obligation to provide to its citizens that's open and available for all the citizens, not just the ones who pay for it with a fee?”
Whether revenues are coming from the tax rate or fees, “It's all coming out of our pockets, whether in the general sense or nickel and diming us,” said Selectman Mefford Runyon. The retired banker noted that “I come from a business that's famous for fees...some are for revenue purposes and some are intended to modify behavior. We should have an idea what we're trying to do with our fees.”
Getting to that point includes, in part, looking at municipal fees as they compare with those of nearby communities. At the selectmen's meeting on Sept. 20, Finance Director Cathy Doane presented a list of the town's fees (McClennen said there are 334) compared to those of Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, and Harwich. The very first fee, for an Auto Class I dealership license, shows Orleans charging $75 and all the other towns $100. An innholder's license costs $50 in Orleans, Brewster and Harwich; $100 in Chatham; and $200 in Eastham. At $1,500, Orleans and Eastham are at the low end for all-alcoholic liquor licenses for innholders; Brewster leads the pack at $1,850, with Harwich at $1,728 and Chatham at $1,775.
Fee-free sports programs are offered through the recreation department in Orleans, with other towns charging $30 to $40. At Nauset Beach, everyone except resident taxpayers pays to park. In their own towns, residents of Chatham, Eastham, and Harwich pay $25 for a sticker, and Brewster residents $40.
(You can view all the fees and comparisons by going to the board of selectmen's page on the town's website, town.orleans.ma.us/board-of-selectmen, and clicking on “meeting packages,” then selecting Sept. 20. There is also a “recommended” column for Orleans showing increases proposed by department managers.)
Selectmen Chairman Jon Fuller noted that town meeting rejected a resident beach sticker fee, but “I couldn't tell from that whether that was an indication the town wants no fee increases and would rather see things on the general tax rate, or (whether) it was an emotional item because of the item picked.” He added that only town meeting can approve increases of more than 5 percent.
Several selectmen said the transfer station, where about 20 percent of the cost is on the tax rate, should be self-supporting from fees. “We need to know how many of our residents get a transfer station sticker and use it, and how many of our residents pay to have their trash picked up,” McClennen said. “If we're operating at 80 percent, it means that taxpayers are really subsidizing a smaller group of people than they think. People who pay extra to get their trash picked up are getting charged on their taxes to pay” for part of the transfer station operation.
McClennen said a system set up this summer to get a better understanding of beach usage could lead to a “peak pricing policy” for parking. Runyon wants to look at street parking by permit for non-residents, “especially in areas around town landings and other destinations.” As a bed and breakfast operator, Runyon said, he supports increasing the hotels and meals tax from 4 percent to 6 percent and backs pending legislation to tax short-term rentals as ways to increase revenue to the town. “How do we charge the people who don't live here more money?” he asked. “I think we've been entirely over-accommodating as a town for the use of our services.”
Citing a recent work session devoted entirely to a discussion among selectmen of wastewater issues, which he called “one of the most productive meetings we've had on the board,” Mathison asked that a similar meeting be devoted to the “huge and important issue” of revenues and fees. The board will try to do just that in November, after the state certifies the town's tax rate.