Orleans Officials Ready For ‘Monster’ Town Meeting

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Town Meeting , Orleans news , Community Preservation Act , sewers

Three petition articles are currently slated to go before voters at the annual and special town meetings on May 9. One petitioner wants the town to “alter” the traffic signal across from the fire department headquarters on Eldredge Park Way. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

ORLEANS – Annual town meeting is May 9, and there will be no shortage of articles for voters to work their way through.

The select board on March 30 voted to place on the warrant and recommend a total of 85 articles, including 75 for the annual town meeting and an additional 10 for the warrant for special town meeting. The spring sessions are scheduled for 6 p.m. inside the Nauset Regional Middle School gymnasium.

Select Board Chair Mefford Runyon said the spring slate is unusually large, but he's hopeful that the town can wrap things in one evening.

"We're well aware that it's a monster warrant," he said. "We looked at what we could put off until the fall. We found a couple of things, but everything else on there is business that has to be taken care of."

Warrants have been trimmed down and articles have been put off in the past few years in an effort to limit people's exposure to COVID-19. Runyon said that has led to a backlog of articles that are coming to the forefront this spring.

At the heart of the annual town meeting is the $40.1 million operating budget for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1. The budget includes a $627,032 override of Proposition 2½ needed to fully fund the town's portion of the Nauset school budget. Unanticipated costs, as well as the addition of 27 new Orleans students to the regional school system, led to higher costs than the town initially budgeted for the coming fiscal year.

If the overall budget is approved, voters will be asked to pass the override at the annual town election on May 17.

"We don't do overrides very often," Runyon said. "Whether or not that turns out to be an issue, we'll see. I hope not."

Runyon emphasized that the override is not a one-off expense. Instead, the increase establishes a baseline for what the town will need to budget for its share of the Nauset school funding in the future.

"This is not a one-time impact. This is an added school cost that goes forward for future budgets, so it really needs to get put out of the way of the regular business of the town."

Four Debt Exclusion Projects To Appear On Warrant

The warrant also includes four debt exclusion questions that will also appear on the town election ballot if approved at the annual town meeting. That includes a $32 million request to fund the construction of a sewer collection system in the area of Meetinghouse Pond. With that is a corresponding article seeking approval of a new sewer betterment bylaw mapping out how current and future sewer work in town will be paid for.

On March 30, the select board voted 4-0 to approve a betterment policy calling for 80 percent of overall sewering costs to be paid for by taxpayers and the remaining 20 percent paid by sewer users in project areas through betterments. The select board saw the breakout as the most fair and equitable way of sharing the cost of sewering among users, as some areas have more customers tying into the system than others.

"The wastewater may be something that people are all ready for," Runyon said. "Big votes have already gone through at town meeting, and I think the town's commitment to sewering is well established. The only thing that's different is the discussion about the betterments."

The other debt exclusion articles include those seeking $500,000 for water quality improvements in the Meetinghouse Pond sewer area, $1 million for an information technology modernization program and $1.65 million to replace windows and roofing at Orleans Elementary School.

Petition Articles

Three citizen petition articles will go before voters, two in the annual session and one in the warrant for the special town meeting. One calls on the select board to develop a tree preservation bylaw that would designate areas on residential lots where trees will be protected during periods of construction or development. The article also calls for the creation of a five-member committee to help craft the bylaw.

The proposal led Select Board member Mark Mathison to raise the question of the article's legality. He also questioned how such a bylaw might be enforced.

"We need to discuss that," he said. "That's one of my concerns already. The conservation commission has one guy out there that's already overburdened."

Select Board member Andrea Reed expressed support for the article, noting that protecting trees helps the town reduce its carbon footprint. Kevin Galligan of the select board also pointed out that the article is non-binding and would not necessarily have to be acted on if approved.

"I think there is some energy for this in town," he said.

Another petition article asks the town to begin exploring the potential for sewering in the area of Mill Pond.

"Sewering the area will stop the nitrogen overload and property owners do not want to wait as the pond deteriorates, prices of sewering go up and the threat of conservation lawsuits loom," a summary of the article reads.

Runyon said the select board needs to see how sewering Mill Pond fits into the town's overall sewing plan, but said the interest in opening up a discussion about the proposal shows the interest in furthering sewering efforts. The select board was due to hear from the article's petitioner at its April 6 meeting.

A third petition article seeks to alter the traffic signal across from the fire department headquarters on Eldredge Park Way. Town Administrator John Kelly advised against turning off the signal, but said that it could possibly be changed from the existing flashing yellow light to a "standing green" light.

"If you turn it off and there is an accident, the town is liable, because you've disregarded the national standard and we'd be held accountable." The select board was to continue its discussion regarding the proposed article April 6.

Funding Sought For 14 Community Preservation Projects

A request to spend approximately $1.39 million in Community Preservation Act funds will also appear on the annual warrant.

Among the 13 projects seeking funding are repairs to the steeple and weathervane of the Federated Church of Orleans ($13,475), wiring repairs and window restoration at the French Cable Museum ($35,670), a recreation master plan and money for design services at Orleans Elementary School, Nauset Regional Middle School and Eldredge Park Way ($52,000), construction of a shared-use path connecting residents of Bakers Pond and Overland Way to downtown ($105,000), restoration of Putnam Farm including infrastructure upgrades ($71,250), the acquisition of two unbuildable lots on Cedar Pond Road to be preserved as open space ($10,000) and restoration of the outdoor walkway at the town's senior center ($24,000).

A separate community preservation request for $1 million to be bonded to fund the creation of affordable housing at 107 Main St. is also included on the annual warrant. However, Housing Assistance Corporation, the project's developer, is also exploring other funding sources to cover that cost, including the use of state money made available through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Proposed Charter Changes

The town's charter review committee has been hard at work in recent months identifying possible changes to the town charter. The committee is bringing 11 recommended changes to the annual town meeting, including lowering the quorum from 200 voters to 100. The proposed change also says that once the town moderator recognizes a quorum and brings town meeting to order, there "shall be no challenge to the quorum."

"This article will ensure that voters remaining at the meeting can complete town meeting business in a timely manner," a summary of the proposed change reads in part.

Galligan said March 30 that he anticipates the proposal will be the subject of some debate next month.

"I'm fine recommending it, but this is going to generate quite a bit of discussion," he said.

Other proposed changes include changing the title of town administrator to town manager and expanding membership of the board of water and sewer commissioners from five voting members to seven, as well as two associate members.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com