Budget Season Picks Up With News Of Tax Rate Cut

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Finance

Budget and finance.

ORLEANS — The town’s projected budget for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1, includes a 2.9 percent decrease in the tax rate and no property tax increase. On the other hand, the first look at operating expenses for the non-school budget shows a 4.7 increase, a bit over the board of selectmen’s 4 percent cap. But there could be good news there, too, if the Cape Cod Municipal Health Group sets coverage rates lower than the 9 percent forecasted in the budget later this month. If that doesn’t happen, reductions will be made to meet the cap.

Town Administrator John Kelly presented the proposed operating and capital budgets for FY21 to the selectmen Jan. 15 along with a proposed capital plan spanning FY22 to FY26. The board’s meetings in the coming week will focus on budget review and votes, with finance committee action to follow. A public hearing will be held March 4.

“The budget recommendations I put together are in accord with the board of selectmen policy set in October to focus on maintaining the existing level of town services while addressing current and future needs in a fiscally responsible manner,” Kelly said.

“The primary drivers” of the decrease in the tax rate, the administrator wrote in his report, are “debt exclusions which are down 13 percent and free cash (which) is up 63.7 percent next year.” Free cash is defined by the state Department of Revenue as being “generated when actual revenue collections are more than budget estimates, and when expenditures and encumbrances (unpaid bills and orders) are less than appropriations, or both.” Town meeting in May will be asked to appropriate $1,486,405 of the town’s certified free cash to reduce the property tax.

The town’s tax rate will remain at $7.56 per thousand of assessed value, lower than all but four Cape towns (Chatham at $4.82, Dennis' $6.10, Provincetown at $6.62, and Truro at $7.33). The top tax rate in the region is Sandwich’s at $14.31.

The proposed operating budget of $39,080,515 incorporates the same guideline for school expenditures—no increases greater than 4 percent—but those budgets are still being put together by the Nauset schools and Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, so final numbers are not available.

Budget forms to be completed by department heads include a section labeled “currently unfunded needs and measures that would improve customer service and operating efficiency,” and it’s here that officials can call for consideration of items beyond the budget in this or future years. These items range from increasing bandwidth for the popular beach cameras at Nauset and Skaket and adding one at Rock Harbor to hundreds of thousands of dollars for restroom and water service improvements at Eldredge Field, accessibility upgrades at Skaket Beach and Pilgrim Lake, and restroom facilities at Depot Square.

In his presentation to the board, Kelly didn’t highlight any of those specific ideas for further discussion with selectmen during the budget review process. His list included instead consideration of other ideas from department heads: a new part-time video technician, funds to mail tax bills quarterly, a new full-time receptionist for the town clerk’s office who would also digitize records, funding for expanded maintenance of public conservation areas, a design consultant on-call to assist the site plan review committee and the architectural review committee, funding a seasonal parking enforcement program, adding a part-time clerk for the building department to help with online permitting and coverage, hiring a second full-time DPW mechanic, and eliminating two seasonal jobs to create a full-time natural resource officer-beach director position.

Also offered for consideration was an increase in the recreation director’s hours from 35 to full-time. The department noted that all towns from Dennis to Provincetown except Orleans have a full-time director and either a full-time or part-time assistant or program specialist (Harwich has both). The proposed operating budget includes funds for increases in seasonal recreation staff and programs based on revenues from recently-instituted fees.

The selectmen and finance committee will hold a joint public hearing on the operating budget March 4. The groups will meet on Feb. 20 as well, when the committee will host a joint public hearing on the capital improvement plan and capital budget. Expenditures in the latter, at $39,024,662, were approved by last year’s town meeting, while the capital plan projects such spending over fiscal years 2022 to 2026.