ORLEANS – If the town's beaches can be considered among the best things in life, then for residents the best things in life are free.
That won't be the case if a proposed new resident beach parking sticker fee makes it to town meeting and is approved. Of course, taxpayers support the beaches financially in other ways already, but a resident sticker fee has always been a step too far.
Last week, the selectmen discussed and recommended fee increases in a variety of departments but made no decision on those proposed for beach and off-road vehicle stickers, including a $25 resident taxpayer beach sticker. That sticker is now free in Orleans, but costs $30 in Chatham and $25 in Eastham and Harwich. Proposed ORV sticker increases were on the order of $10.
Town Administrator John Kelly said he had asked department heads to review all the town's fees, compare them with surrounding communities for consistency, and “identify areas we should look at.” The proposed changes, which will be the subject of a fee schedule hearing before advancing to town meeting, include increased charges for liquor and dog licenses, plumbing and gas inspections, and commercial shellfish and non-commercial mooring permits.
Selectman Mark Mathison, the board's liaison to the shellfish and waterways advisory committee, said suggested increases from $100 to $200 for a commercial shellfish permit and $75 to $100 for mooring permits were likely to draw requests for justification. “We have a reciprocal agreement with Eastham,” Kelly said. “They've been charging 200 bucks. We haven't been consistent.” He added that Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears had weighed in on the recommendations.
“The ORV program,” said Selectman Mefford Runyon, “should be self-funding with sticker prices. (Current charges) are ridiculously cheap. I think general tax revenue supporting the (residential) beach sticker is fine, but I don't see why the general tax should support ORVs.”
Regarding ORVs, Mathison noted that “we have limited use of that beach for a great deal of the summer because it's closed (for habitat conservation). You need to look at reality. We could put the fee up close to where it pays for everything and if people don't buy (the permit), then it doesn't pay for it. We should have the debate first, then put something in.”
The board agreed that a public hearing was the first step in gauging public opinion. The draft warrant for the May town meeting includes separate articles for the overall fee schedule and for the resident taxpayer beach parking sticker.
Selectmen were happy to endorse a much less controversial aspect of the proposed fee schedule, at least based on public comment during their Feb. 13 meeting. They looked favorably on instituting recreation fees, which would with town meeting's blessing rise from zero to $30 for youth sports and $15 for youth clinics and adult programs. Swimming lessons, also free now, would cost residents $25 and non-residents $45 for a six-week program, and currently free summer programs would cost residents $125 (non-residents $150) for six weeks or $75/$95 for three weeks.
“As a resident and parent, and an individual who used recreation programs in our neighbor communities, I do see a real need to increase our recreation department offerings,” said Alison Wilkinson. “They feel quite underfunded in comparison to our neighbors. Even towns with much smaller populations seem to have much more robust programs and support for facilities and staff.”
The numbers provide support. According to the town's study, Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, and Harwich all charge at least $30 for youth sports and have fees for their summer programs and swimming lessons.
“Right now, all our programs are free, which is amazing,” said Catherine Wade, vice president of the Orleans Elementary School Parent Teacher Committee. “I know a lot of parents who would be willing to pay fees to increase programs.” She said reduced hours for the summer program was “a real hardship for parents in terms of child care. With most families in Orleans, both parents are working.” She said additional funding could extend the summer program a few weeks beyond the time instructors return to college.
“Two years ago, I paid for my three children to play sports in a neighboring town,” said Lia DeGiacomo, whose youngsters are enrolled in the Orleans program. “I paid for it and I volunteered to coach all three teams. What we were looking for was not available in Orleans. I think we have the population to support additional programs.”
DeGiacomo spoke in favor of increasing Recreation Director Alan Harrison's hours from 30 to 35. During this week's school vacation, she said, Harrison and Wilkinson and “a couple of volunteers” had organized limited recreation hours at the elementary school gym. “Parents are willing to pay,” she said. “They're willing to volunteer their time. Including (more) hours for the recreation director would really help with programming.”
At last week's meeting, Harrison reviewed the program's progress since he was hired in the fall of 2017. He described a closer relationship between his department and the council on aging that has led to “very successful” programs for seniors and noted expanded offerings for other ages.
“If we had a fee structure in place,” he said, “even if it's a flexible number, we could meet lots of new challenges and goals.” He said he'd use his five extra hours a week “to expand programming and get more people involved.”
Runyon saw an additional way to aid the department. “All the other towns around us have a recreation commission,” he said. “Orleans does not. All those other towns have a board of volunteer citizens. It's probably a very good way of getting the community's hopes and dreams and desires put in front of you for development.”
Kelly said the town once had an elected recreation commission that then became a town committee. “We were not able to keep it filled with volunteers,” he said, noting the value of such a group as an advocate for the department.
The board and Harrison made clear that any fee system would include exceptions for those unable to pay.
“Orleans has been a little slow to embrace this as an enrichment program for the community,” Runyon said. “There's been reluctance or little progress with fees in general. I understand (the question) of who can afford them and who can't. A better approach to build on is what most people can afford and then build in a way that we don't leave anybody out. (It should be) an honor system, with no onerous requirements. I think Orleans is honest enough to have that work right.”