ORLEANS — Town meeting was in a mood to approve some big-ticket items Monday night, including a $37.1 million operating budget for the town and schools and $4.2 million for continued work on water quality projects, but members were downright penny-pinching when it came to raising fees.
The meeting voted down the finance committee's proposal to review all fees annually with an eye toward eventually bringing them more in line with the actual cost of providing services, and voted to indefinitely postpone the selectmen's package of proposed fee increases.
Marijuana won big, with voters rejecting a petitioned article to ban recreational sales and cultivation and refusing to extend a moratorium on such enterprises past June 30. Those votes were split, but an article to accept the local option tax on retail marijuana sales passed unanimously. “At least we know we want the money,” Moderator David Lyttle remarked.
The town put some serious money away for housing needs, agreeing to provide $275,000 for a revised affordable housing trust that will also receive $300,000 from Community Preservation funds. The $275,000 is subject to a successful general override vote at the May 15 town election, where the $4.2 million for water quality work will be up for a debt exclusion vote.
It was win one, lose one for the town's beaches. Voters were unanimous in approving $175,000 for a Nauset Beach retreat master plan and design, but decided to delay action on a new restrooms/administration building for Skaket Beach. Both projects appear on the May 15 ballot as debt exclusions, but only the Nauset project remains a valid question now.
Town meeting was willing to add $450,000 to the tax levy to pay down the town's unfunded OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) liability, which requires a general override OK next week at the polls, but said no to a $75,000 survey of Beach Road for potential construction of a sidewalk.
The meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m., didn't start until almost 7 p.m. as 492 voters checked in using the Poll Pad computer registration system. Adjournment came minutes before midnight.
For his many contributions to clean water efforts, Len Short of the board of water and sewer commissioners received the Citizen of the Year. The honor was presented by Selectmen Chairman Jon Fuller; later in the same meeting, Fuller was honored with a citation for his 14 and a half years on the board. Selectman Alan McClennen said only two men since 1900 served longer: Leroy Nickerson (1936 to 1955) and Arthur Sparrow (1920 to 1937).
There was no discussion from the floor before unanimous passage of the $37,141,387 town and schools budget. Finance Committee Chairwoman Lynn Bruneau said her board voted 6-1 to support the spending, “but the process is a problem.” She said that going forward, “we intend to work more directly with the finance director, the town administrator, and the selectmen to address the budget process itself.” Each department's budget should be based on actual needs and costs, she said, “not simply last year's budget plus 2½ percent.”
Voters approved the five-year capital plan unanimously. Bruneau reminded everyone that “this is a plan, not a commitment. Working together, we can identify other sources (of funds) without relying (solely) on property taxes.”
Remarkably, $4,223,600 for water quality projects ranging from final design of the downtown sewer system to continued study of non-traditional denitrifying methods passed unanimously, after years of contentious debate. Selectmen Alan McClennen noted progress to date, including demolition of the closed Tri-Town Septage Plant, the intended site of the new wastewater treatment plant; selection of primary and secondary disposal sites for treated wastewater; and a positive independent review of design work to date by consultants AECOM. A favorable vote Monday night, he said, would put the town in line to apply for zero percent state financing for infrastructure, and approval of a draft regional watershed permit with neighboring Brewster, Chatham and Harwich would lead to state approval of non-traditional (and less expensive) nitrogen removal techniques such as aquaculture and permeable reactive barriers (later on, town meeting approved entering into that regional agreement unanimously).
On the other hand, disagreement was the order of the day concerning the Skaket Beach replacement building. Kevin Galligan, the finance committee member who will become a selectman next week (he's running unopposed), spoke for his committee's majority in supporting the project, noting that the current facility is not compliant with access requirements and discharges stormwater onto the beach. His colleague Bob Renn, however, said the design should be revisited to see whether the coastal structure should be raised. The article failed with 197 in favor and 231 opposed.
Young and old spoke in favor of creating a revised, more agile affordable housing trust and seeding it with $275,000. “One of the biggest reasons we should support this article is in the audience right now,” Alexis Mathison said. “I encourage you to look around. I'm 25 years old. I'm a teacher at Nauset Regional High School, and I live with my father. There is no affordable housing for young professionals.” On the other end of the spectrum, Jon Holt asked that Orleans not turn into a community like Sun City, Az., with “no babies, no children. Another selfish reason to support this is that I'm getting near 80, and I'm going to need some of these younger people.”
A ban on single-use plastic bags and a polystyrene reduction requirement both sailed through unanimously, and voters adopted the stretch building code, a step on the path to the town's qualification by the state as a Green Community deserving of grant support.
The finance committee's article for a more regularized review of fees with consideration of meeting full costs for services provided didn't sit well with some voters who wanted to preserve town meeting's control of increases above a certain percentage. “It would be better for the meeting to vote against this motion and urge the finance committee to come back at the next town meeting with a revision that incorporates meaningful hearing requirements,” Paul Davis said. The article failed on a voice vote.
The fee schedule's variety of increases touched off a long debate as well as the feeling of suddenly attending an old-fashioned silent movie. First John Nichols and then Judith Whitney-Terry brought up proposed amendments, which required lengthy off-microphone consultations with the moderator and temporary town counsel Duane Landreth. Eventually, a gavel-like sound was heard as a voter pounded his cane on the floor and declared, “Let's get going.” Finally, Fuller moved indefinite postponement. “Obviously things need to be worked on,” he said. “Perhaps the two citizens concerned about this can come and speak with the selectmen.”
Town meeting held a long debate on a petitioned article for a $75,000 study of Beach Road so a public layout could be considered and a sidewalk built. The selectmen and finance committee were unanimous in opposition, with Fuller citing a 2011 study that found eminent domain takings would be required, with the expected legal challenges. He said his board's policy is not to lay out a road unless 75 percent of abutters approve, and at the time “there was overwhelming opposition” to the idea. Audience members were divided, with advocates citing safety concerns and opponents wanting to leave the road's scenic charm untouched. The measure failed to reach the three-quarters majority required for a petitioned article.
The debate that followed on the marijuana articles was even more intense. Introducing a petitioned article to ban recreational marijuana sales, Maria Bechtold said such enterprises “are overwhelmingly opposed by Orleans educators and public safety officials who cite concerns about behavioral issues, gateway drug (concerns), driving under the influence, and encouraging use by minors.” She called the establishments “inconsistent with the town's plan for Orleans as a family-oriented seaside community.”
Finance committee member Peter Monger said recreational sales would bring $90,000 a year to the town, increase employment, and provide a well-monitored supply with reduced opportunities for lacing with substances such as fentanyl. Another speaker compared cultivators to the traditional farmers and fishermen of Cape Cod, and a pharmacist spoke to the advantages of marijuana versus opioids in managing pain.
The article failed to pass, 80 in favor to 150 opposed. On the next article, to extend the moratorium on recreational marijuana from June 30 to the end of December so the planning board could prepare bylaws for fall town meeting, Josh Stewart unleashed a blistering attack on the board for choosing “politics over preparation. You're asking for more time for what you should have been doing these last six months rather than pushing your personal agenda on the town.”
On a standing count, the article failed with 94 in favor and 111 against. Immediately after, town meeting agreed to adopt a 3 percent local option tax on marijuana sales.