Finance Committee Urges Action On Town Needs With 'Eyes Open'

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Finance

The Nadler family of Orleans has stepped forward as the private buyer-backers helping the Friends of Pleasant Bay purchase Sipson Island through a new trust.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS In its annual report and letter to the town, the finance committee has some advice for voters: “(There's) a lot of stuff going on at once. Some might say too much. But there are good reasons for getting all this work done now.”

In plainspoken language, the letter states that funding for the comprehensive water resources management plan “is still the elephant in the room, and the temptation is to say ENOUGH! But let's not close the door on an opportunity. The financing program for this system is very favorable to the taxpayers. First, Orleans will be able to borrow the construction funds from the Commonwealth at 0 percent interest; and second, the Commonwealth could rebate to the town as much as one-third of these construction costs.” Further assistance will be available through the new Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund, which will draw on rooms excise tax revenue.

For these and other reasons, the committee joined the board of selectmen in voting unanimously to support an appropriation of $49,382,800 to build the downtown area collection system, a wastewater treatment plant, and an effluent (treated wastewater) disposal system. Selectman David Currier, who owns businesses in the downtown area, did not participate in his board's vote. The action will require a two-thirds majority at town meeting May 13 and approval at the May 21 election.

The unanimity of the board and committee doesn't extend to an article creating a stabilization fund into which all revenue from the local option rooms excise tax would be funneled for water quality management purposes. All the selectmen support the article, but the finance committee is split 3-3, with one member abstaining.

“It's not against the concept of (using the funds for) wastewater,” committee chairman Lynn Bruneau said in an interview. “It's against the single use and not having the flexibility” to use the funds for additional purposes that have been raised by the public, including tourism promotion and affordable housing. “The implication was that it would be broader,” Bruneau said. She noted that Town Administrator John Kelly has said that, once the revenue stream is established, town meeting can change the purposes of the fund.

Half the committee (in a 4-4 vote) objected to putting the question of electronic voting at town meeting and money to purchase and lease the equipment in the same article. “We're not against the concept of electronic voting,” Bruneau said. “It's just having the money all in one.” The selectmen support the article unanimously.

All board members are also behind acquiring a property known as Herrick Landing to provide access to the water and kayak racks. The finance committee voted 5-3 to support the article. Speaking for the minority of her group, Bruneau questioned the timing of the $500,000 appropriation “when in the meantime we have firemen and policemen making (significantly) less than in neighboring towns. (Fire Chief) Tony Pike still does not have a viable applicant for his opening.”

Both the board of selectmen and the finance committee are split over the proposed purchase of a conservation restriction to prevent development of and allow public access to Sipson Island in Pleasant Bay, but only the board has voted so far, registering a 3-2 endorsement. Bruneau, who said her committee could vote on the article at one of its Thursday sessions (not tonight's) before town meeting, is one of at least three members who aren't sold on the plan.

“The $1.5 million could be used for better purposes,” she said. “I think this should be supported by private funds, and by the way, the town will likely lose close to $50,000 in tax revenue, maybe only $35,000, in perpetuity.” The threat of someone developing Sipson, she said, “is bloody unlikely. I don't understand the sudden threat.” Bruneau said some members feel the island “is not really accessible to the ordinary people.” She noted that member Bob Renn supports the purchase as a rare opportunity “to protect this amount of acreage.”

Anyone on either side of this issue is welcome to attend and speak at the committee's Thursday 7 p.m. gatherings at town hall. “Every time we start one of these meetings,” she said, “I always say, 'Come on down and talk to us.”

The committee's annual letter to the town calls for cautious progress:

“With recent and anticipated increases in spending on a number of long-overdue infrastructure projects, and the perceived need to catch up in other areas such as wages and housing, with the resulting increase in Town debt and property taxes, we need to keep a sharp eye on the economy. If there were to be a severe or prolonged economic downturn, the revenue projections and loan forgiveness outlined above may come into question, leaving taxpayers to cover any shortfalls. But fear of the future isn't helpful either. We need to move forward now, with confidence, but with our eyes open.”