WELLFLEET — With the opportune arrival of an influx of free cash, a largely agreeable gym-full of voters at Saturday’s town meeting left no article defeated.
The six-hour meeting was Wellfleet’s first in the elementary school gymnasium since the pandemic pushed the meeting outdoors. What might have been debate about plunging the town deeper into debt was avoided by the infusion of $4.5 million in free cash on April 21. Discussion of expenditures on the town’s capital budget and on housing and wastewater specialist positions led to yes votes all around.
But at the town election on May 1, a Proposition 2½ override to fund the housing specialist position approved at town meeting was defeated. The override lost by just 17 votes.
The new housing position was endorsed by numerous town meeting speakers. “It has gotten to the point where we can no longer do this with volunteers,” said Gary Sorkin of the community preservation committee and housing authority. “We desperately need professional help.”
“We have many housing programs, but there is no monitoring or enforcement,” said select board vice chair Michael DeVasto. “The town does not have the resources, and we’ve had issues come up that are the result of not having key staff to support housing.”
The meeting approved $115,000 for the new position.
Voters approved an operating budget of $28 million, including a permanent override of $635,192, with virtually no opposition. Town Administrator Rich Waldo named the school budget and county retirement assessment as the main drivers of the override, along with “operational changes to improve our structure.”
Questions on how to pay for items in the $3.8-million capital budget provoked debate. DeVasto proposed funding a $200,000 marina master plan with free cash instead of borrowed money.
With $2.8 million in free cash unallocated, he argued, the town would still have more than 10 percent of its operating budget in cash reserves. Taking $200,000 from free cash would leave $2.6 million, “which is more than we have ever had,” DeVasto said.
His fellow board members Ryan Curley and John Wolf objected. But former Town Administrator Harry Terkanian sided with DeVasto. “It’s poor policy to borrow for capital items, which, in reality, are operating expenses,” he said. “We have sufficient free cash to meet our policy reserves and still fund this.” DeVasto’s amendment was approved.
A big chunk of the capital budget, $1.65 million, will be funded through debt exclusions. A water main extension project costing $850,000 proved to be the most contentious item.
The main would extend Eastham’s water system to Maurice’s Campground to serve the affordable housing development planned there. Waldo said “time is of the essence” for the project, given the Mass. Dept. of Transportation’s plans to resurface Route 6 in Wellfleet in the next two years, which would put a moratorium on cutting into pavement.
But Water Commissioner Curt Felix said the funding mechanism for the project “makes very little sense. Eastham is ultimately going to get paid for that water, so this is a benefit to the town of Eastham through fees that Wellfleet residents will be paying.”
Felix said funding the project now could endanger grant opportunities down the road. But DeVasto said, “The longer we wait to do this, it will end up costing the town a lot more money. We see that with everything.”
“What we’ve got before us is the most imaginative, creative thing this town has come up with in years,” said John Cumbler, referring to the Maurice’s project. “Let’s not nickel and dime today so that we don’t get to put in as many affordable housing units as we desperately need.”
Housing authority chair Elaine McIlroy added that “this is what regional cooperation looks like, and we need a lot more of it.”
The Maurice’s water main was approved by a large margin.
With minimal debate, voters approved a wastewater and water superintendent position to oversee the town’s targeted watershed management plan. “This will not be an easy nor a cheap endeavor, and we need someone to lead us through this process,” Waldo said.
“Water and wastewater are inextricably linked to housing, and they are the two most important challenges we face today,” said Terkanian. “We’ve been doing more with less for a long time. Now we are doing less with less, lurching from one crisis to the next. It’s time to face the music.”
The position will cost $145,000 per year.
Voters also approved a stipend increase for select board members, with $7,000 for the chair and $5,000 for other members, over former board member Helen Miranda Wilson’s objection to paying the chair extra.
“It’s a five-member committee,” Wilson said. “They can all share the work.” Her amendment to equalize the pay was defeated.
Four hours into the meeting, Christine Hight noticed the crowd dwindling and questioned whether there was still a quorum present. A count revealed there were 175 voters, 11 short of the required number.
During a 30-minute recess, voters frantically called friends and neighbors to come to the meeting. When Moderator Dan Silverman called the meeting back into session, a recount of 180 was still six voters short. More filtered into the gym, and the tellers moved about the room conducting a third count.
“We have quorum,” Silverman announced, and the room exploded in applause. “I would ask those that are here to stay,” Silverman said. “As retired fire chief, I am not going to allow the doors to be locked.”