Orleans Voters Keep Spending Top Of Mind

by Ryan Bray
Town Manager Kim Newman speaks to the new operating budget for fiscal 2025 during Monday’s annual town meeting at Nauset Regional Middle School..  RYAN BRAY PHOTO Town Manager Kim Newman speaks to the new operating budget for fiscal 2025 during Monday’s annual town meeting at Nauset Regional Middle School.. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – Does the town of Orleans need to start tightening its purse strings? The question was one that hung over much of the discussion at Monday’s annual town meeting.

Voters ultimately approved a new $51.2 million town and school operating budget for the new fiscal year, as well as approximately $10 million worth of overrides to pay for improvements to the commercial wharf at Rock Harbor and a design for the third phase of sewer work. But those approvals and others for separate spending articles on the warrant didn’t come without considerable questions around the town’s spending.

Ed Mahoney of the finance committee noted that the new budget for fiscal 2025 is the first in the town’s history to eclipse the $50 million mark. He also said this marks the third consecutive year in which the budget has increased by double digits from the year prior.

Town Manager Kim Newman said several factors drove the near 12 percent increase from the current fiscal year, including $1.7 million in debt related to the construction of the new Nauset Regional High School. The budget also includes an additional $360,000 set aside for contract negotiations with three of the town’s unions, as well as $450,000 for new positions and classifications, Newman said. She said the new budget also includes items that were funded through their own individual articles in past years.

“I will give a great shout out to all of my departments that I inherited. This town is incredibly fiscally responsible,” she said. “These budgets are carefully examined from December until when we put them together in April.”

But some voters raised concerns with the trend of double digit budget increases at a time where expenses continue to rise.

“I’m looking at retirement hopefully, and everything just keeps getting more expensive,” said Roger McAdams. “At some point there needs to be some kind of leveling off.”

Another resident said at the current rate of budget growth, residents could see their property taxes double in the next five to seven years. But others, including Steve Guditis, principal at Eddy Elementary School in Brewster, spoke in support of the budget. He said the average budget increase across the Nauset elementary schools and regional school district as well as Cape Cod Regional Technical High School is 7 percent for the new fiscal year.

“While 7 percent is a little bit higher than we want it to be, I think the children in this town deserve our support and the staff that work tirelessly to educate our students deserve our support,” he said. The budget passed by a margin of 422-155.

Article 14, which sought the adoption of the town’s five year capital improvement plan, was met with similar questions from residents. The plan includes approximately $100 million budgeted for the potential development of a town campus on Eldredge Park Way, including $35 million for the potential construction of a new fire station and $55 million for a new elementary school. A separate article to fund a feasibility study for $150,000 to look at options for a campus design passed Monday night.

While concerns were raised about some of those costs, Beverly Fuller said that not everything outlined in the plan will come to fruition at the same time.

“I’m thinking everything here isn’t going to come in all at once,” she said.

“These projects will get pushed,” Select Board chair Michael Herman said. “Some other projects will come in. It’s a moving target.”

Steve Gass, a former Snow Library trustee who now chairs the feasibility task force working toward the construction of a new library, said the capital plan is essentially “a planning document.”

“This really just represents our best thinking,” he said. The capital plan was approved 420-187.

While many articles were approved Monday over objections raised about the town’s spending, an article to fund a $512,500 appropriation to the affordable housing trust fund was voted down 344-166.

Town meeting voters in 2018 approved $275,000 for the trust fund annually through a Proposition 2½ override. Last year, voters approved extending that amount by $225,000 to allow the fund to better support attainable housing projects up to 200 percent of the area median income.

Alan McClennen, chair of the affordable housing trust fund board, said that with the average cost of a single housing unit on Cape Cod being $550,000, the additional funding is needed to help the trust support the need for housing that exists locally. He also noted that the trust fund board has been involved in the development of 76 new affordable housing units in town since 2019. Those include the new 62-unit Pennrose development that is currently under construction on West Road; 14 units planned for development at 107 Main St.; a Habitat for Humanity home; and a condominium on Old Colony Way. He said those efforts have helped Orleans achieve a notable distinction among other Cape towns on the affordable housing front.

“The town of Orleans is now the first town on Cape Cod to pass 10 percent affordable housing,” he said. That benchmark allows the town to ward off undesirable 40B projects in the future, he said.

But Lynn Bruneau of the finance committee, one of the committee members who voted against supporting the article, said that better “financial management, controls and reporting” are needed from the trust fund board. She said the request for funding could come back to town meeting voters in the fall, when it is anticipated that the state legislature will have weighed in on the town’s petition to expand the annual appropriation.

Until the petition is approved at the state level, the trust fund board is limited to supporting projects up to 80 percent of area median income, a figure that excludes housing that can support members of the local workforce who cannot qualify for “Big A” affordable housing as defined by the state.

“Very few of our firefighters, our police officers, our teachers, our town hall employees qualify for housing under those limitations,” Bruneau said.

Peter Haig, an Orleans resident and local architect, said the key to solving the region’s housing crisis rests in the ability of the town and other agencies to more broadly support the need for housing.

“I’d love for that to be resolved, but not at the expense of funding only ‘Big A’ affordable housing,” he said.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com