Orleans Eyes Fee Increases To Close Budget Gap

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Municipal Finance

Orleans officials are looking at raising waterways fees, among others, to help close a projected budget gap. FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS — With a million-dollar operating budget shortfall forecast for the fiscal year beginning July 2021, the select board and other officials are taking a hard look at expenses and revenues in a series of fiscal stability workshops. Last week, the focus was on fees the town charges for its services, and the potential for asking October’s special town meeting to make some changes that can take effect as early as January.

A draft warrant for the Oct. 26 town meeting was on the board’s agenda last night (Sept. 2). It includes requests for authorization to create enterprise funds for sewer, beach, mooring, transfer station, and Rock Harbor operations. Such funds were recommended years ago by the former revenue committee, which argued that they would make transparent the true costs of operations, including indirect costs such as fringe benefits, and allow rate-setting that would cover all costs. In some cases, subsidies from the general operations fund would still be required.

Authorization next month to create enterprise funds would allow time to prepare these for their debut in the town’s FY 22 budget. Last week, the select board looked closely at rate changes that could take place before July 1. These will be the subject of a public hearing on Sept. 16.

Town Administrator John Kelley presented a breakdown of revenue by department and a list of recommended fee changes, backing that up with comparisons to charges in Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, and Harwich. “I think we need to focus on getting something before the voters in October so we can begin a revenue stream,” he said of the proposed increases, which include another try for a resident taxpayer beach sticker fee of $25. That compares favorably with neighboring towns, three of which charge that amount, but town meeting voted down a previous request to raise the Orleans fee from zero.

“If we sell 8,000 (stickers) rather than give away $8,000, that’s $200,000 that potentially would go a long way toward addressing what we know is a deficit coming in FY 22,” said Kelly. If the October session of town meeting agreed, the additional funds could be collected as soon as sticker sales started in March.

Building department fees are another area of interest. “We want to make sure our pricing is consistent with neighboring towns,” Kelly said. “Clearly the fees do have some ability to be raised.”

Although increases are suggested for just a relative handful of the 11 pages of town fees, select board member Mefford Runyon warned that “we should be thinking about what our warrant presentation will look like to voters… I think we need to think about how to put this in front of them so they don’t think they are being fee’d to death.” Town meeting approval is required for new fees and any that are increased by more than 5 percent.

Given the town’s water-based economy, it’s no surprise that much discussion last week centered on raising fees for dockage (included in the proposal) and mooring permits (not included).

“We’re looking at what Eastham is now charging on their side of Rock Harbor,” Kelly said. “There’s a significant difference. This is an intermediate step,” he said of small proposed back-in fee increases. “We have not raised rates down there in a number of years. It’s clearly something the board should be focusing more on as an enterprise (fund) study.”

Finance committee member Nick Athanassiou, one of his board’s representatives to the fiscal stability sessions, questioned why the $100 fee for non-commercial mooring permits was not proposed for an increase given that “we have long queues for moorings.” Another fee not on the list for an increase, the $200 marina mooring permit, drew fire from select board member Cecil Newcomb. “That should be significantly higher,” he said. “They’re taking up a huge piece of town bottom. They’re making money off this and we should, too.”

Select board member Mark Mathison, who has been putting in his moorings since the 1970s when “it didn’t cost me anything,” reminded his colleagues that “we’re talking about charging fees to cover the cost of the service rendered… I put my mooring together by myself, I put it in the water by myself, I take it out of the water by myself, and the only thing the harbormaster’s office does... is verify the sticker on the side of the boat. I find it hard to imagine that it costs us $100 per boat… The reason why these fees are regulated is so you can’t just charge fees to pay bills that have nothing to do with the service provided. We need to run this by the shellfish and waterways advisory committee and get some real numbers. Before you just jump in and say a lot people want moorings, so let’s jack the price up... and we’ll all be fat and happy making money off a service we don’t provide.

“One hundred percent of mooring revenue goes into a waterways account,” Finance Director Cathy Doane said. “All those mooring fees go for the waterways, not just to drive by and look at mooring permits.” She found it unusual that Orleans, unlike other towns, doesn’t charge by boat length.

“One reason we don’t base it on the size of the vessel,” Mathison said, “is because what regulates the number of boats on moorings in any area is the number of parking spaces on land. If you have much bigger boats, you have fewer moorings. We don’t have that issue in Orleans. Our issue is that we don’t have the parking.”

The board agreed to move forward on beach fee increases but deferred further action until hearing from Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears before the Sept. 16 hearing.

“This is really just focusing” on the current fiscal year, Select Board Chair Kevin Galligan said. “We’re looking at budget adjustments maybe as soon as the October town meeting. If this could be viewed as a slight bump in local receipts, that’s all to the good.”