BARNSTABLE — A battle over the coming year’s budget has put the branches of county government at odds once again.
The three county commissioners, who head the executive branch, submitted a $22-million budget proposal in March. The Assembly of Delegates, the legislative branch, was shocked by an 11-percent increase over the prior year and deleted $835,000 in new personnel in early May.
The commissioners vetoed that pared-down package on May 23 and publicly blasted the Assembly’s action, warning that the county’s towns wouldn’t receive key services because of the cuts. Two days later, on May 25, the Assembly voted by a supermajority to override the veto, keeping their smaller budget in place.
Within hours of that vote, the commissioners issued a media alert. “The Assembly’s action last night will end this regional partnership,” they said, pledging to “fight the cuts and honor all service contracts.”
The commissioners warned that cuts to the information technology (IT) department would affect contracts the county had with Bourne and Harwich. Cutting the resource development officer, they said, would make it difficult for the county and the towns “to pursue billions of dollars in federal and state funding: for wastewater, PFAS and other groundwater pollution remediation projects, broadband and affordable housing initiatives.”
The commission put requests for supplemental funding for IT and the resource development office on its June 1 meeting agenda.
To Hire or Not to Hire
During the Assembly’s review of the commission’s budget proposal in early May, Deputy Speaker Mary Chaffee of Brewster warned that history shows that increases made when the county was flush later resulted in massive cuts in services and staff when times were tough.
“We don’t want to spend our way into another mess,” Chaffee said. “We need to adopt a budget that is sustainable.”
The $835,000 in cuts included a handful of staff positions that had not yet been filled in the finance, IT, and administrative offices, along with accompanying benefits. “This is not punitive to any department, but when we add staff, it’s not just for one year, it’s forever,” said Harwich Assembly member Elizabeth Harder. “And you have health insurance and retirement: it adds up.”
Only one of the eliminated positions had already been filled: the resource development officer. John Ohman, who chairs the Assembly’s finance committee, spoke against that particular cut, saying there was “a living, breathing human being” in the position, but a majority of the Assembly voted for it.
On May 23, when the commissioners vetoed that budget, they put out a press release saying the Assembly’s budget “fails to provide adequate support for certain operating expenses of Barnstable County and will have negative consequences for the region.”
The commissioners also accused the Assembly of failing to provide explanations for the cuts, which they said was required under the county’s charter.
“The commissioners and the people of Barnstable County are entitled to know exactly why the Assembly has proposed cuts in programs and services to the people and municipalities of Barnstable County,” wrote the commission in its veto message to the Assembly.
The commissioners also argued that their original $22-million budget proposal was only 6.4 percent over the current year, not 11 percent. They based that calculation on the fiscal 2022 approved budget plus various supplemental spending added over the last several months.
On May 25, the Assembly had a choice of accepting the commission’s veto of the reduced budget or overriding the veto, which required a two-thirds majority vote. An override would legally enact the Assembly’s budget.
Assembly members took a conciliatory tone during the discussion, but most continued to support the version they had already approved.
Speaker Patrick Princi of Barnstable noted that it had been a difficult budget season since the county had been without a finance director. Urging members to override the veto and support the reduced budget, Princi said the package was enough to provide the county with essential services. The commissioners could get funding for other items, such as the IT department positions, through supplemental budget votes, he said.
Only three members voted not to override the commissioners’ veto, all from Outer Cape towns.
Sallie Tighe, Truro’s representative, said she had attended the meetings of the Assembly’s finance committee and those of the county commissioners. “I can’t go along with the amended budget,” she said. “That’s it.”
Brian O’Malley, Provincetown’s representative, said he didn’t believe the prediction that revenue from real estate sales, which partially supports the county budget, was going to nose-dive. House sales may fall, O’Malley said, but in Provincetown “the commercial real estate market is as hot as a firecracker.”
Terence Gallagher, Eastham’s delegate, also opposed overriding the commission’s veto.
Lilli Ann Green, Wellfleet’s delegate, was the only Outer Cape representative who voted to override. “I think that it is critically important to be fiscally responsible, given the history of the Assembly and how we had to take drastic measures for so many years and rein things in when we were in the red,” Green said. “I think we would be on the wrong path if we don’t vote to override.”
The Assembly members’ votes are weighted, based on the population of the towns they represent. Under that system, the 12 members who voted to override represented 94.8 percent of the votes.