EASTHAM — Town officials tried to persuade the finance committee on March 9 that a $500,000 budget override was still needed despite $220,000 in savings since a preliminary budget was proposed in December.
Finance Director Rich Bienvenue’s early estimates of the town’s fiscal 2023 budget turned out to be high. Still, Bienvenue and Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe proposed spending the extra $220,000 on immediate service needs and long-term overtime costs.
Finance committee members Steve Cole and Rick Knight argued that the town should use the money to decrease the override or eliminate it entirely by combining the savings with other funds such as cannabis tax revenues.
With a $500,000 override still attached, the new projected budget would total $35,223,583, a 7.2-percent increase over last year. The estimated average tax bill for property owners would be $5,013, a 1.88-percent increase (about $93) over last year.
“Where the economy is, it just does not seem to me the time to do an override,” said Knight. “I’m disappointed.”
Beebe said cutting the budget now could derail the town’s ambitious agenda. “Deferring things to next year, two years down, that’s what Eastham did in the past,” she said. “And we have a perfect example of how that operates over a few years in Wellfleet.”
Wellfleet’s projected override this year is currently $1.3 million because of deferred projects and hiring. Now, said Beebe, Wellfleet has to fill seven or eight positions.
“We’re moving forward on a lot of huge initiatives,” she said. “We have wastewater, Town Center Plaza, and T-Time. We have Route 6. We have housing. I don’t want to go backwards.”
“We’re becoming a role model for a lot of other towns,” said select board chair Art Autorino. “So far, most of the community has been with us.”
Bienvenue advocated using $34,000 to make the operating budget less reliant on local receipts, which aligns with conservative budgeting practices. The town should also put $15,000 in the salary adjustment account because, he continued, “we’re no longer seeing savings on turnover.” The emergency management budget would get $10,000, which the fire and police chiefs say they need to manage more frequently occurring storms. Allocations of $35,000 and $21,000 would make the part-time I.T. director and conservation agent jobs full-time. Finally, Bienvenue recommended adding $75,000 to the reserve fund in light of inflationary pressures.
Cole noted that the need for a budget override could be eliminated if the town were to save the $220,000 and allocate the 3-percent recreational cannabis host community agreement fee to the operating budget.
Eastham expects to net between $400,000 and $500,000 from the cannabis fee this year. Bienvenue warned, however, that the revenue stream is “volatile.” Pot shops are opening in Orleans, and the two Eastham dispensaries’ long-term viability is uncertain, he said. Bienvenue also noted that the Cannabis Control Commission has told towns that the host community fee may decrease or disappear. The other 3-percent local tax would remain intact.
For that reason, Bienvenue and Beebe proposed spending only $240,000 of this year’s cannabis revenues to pilot three new staff positions.
A certified paramedic community risk reduction worker would assist fire and police, responding to nonemergency calls involving senior citizens “in lieu of rolling out a full ambulance crew,” Bienvenue said. The position would ideally increase services while cutting down on overtime costs. A new town social worker would offer case management and connect residents with needed services.
Lastly, a new municipal finance worker would save money in the long run by removing the need to outsource finance work, Bienvenue said.
Cole argued that the town had initially proposed a budget with no increase in services. “None of these ideas were urgent enough to get into the original draft,” Cole said. “That doesn’t mean they’re not needed, but it does tell me about the urgency. All the new proposed spending depends on how well the cannabis revenue proceeds in the future. It seems iffy to me to be building permanent positions that way, especially when we have an override that would be unnecessary if we held back on those new items.”
“I understand your reservations,” Beebe said. “I think we could try and cut the budget, but that it would cost us more money next year and the year after that.”
The finance committee had not decided whether to recommend the administration’s budget at the Independent’s deadline this week.
“If you don’t ask for more frequent, smaller, recurring overrides, you end up with less frequent but much bigger overrides,” said Bienvenue. “I don’t see the appetite for a large override next year or in any number of years in the future.”
Bienvenue also said that the operating budget could theoretically be balanced using short-term rental tax fees. The select board’s policy, however, is to use that money for community goals including housing. Last year the town collected over $900,000 from short-term rentals; $350,000 helped fund the Town Center Plaza purchase and two housing-related staff positions.
“In the long term, we want to keep those funds flexible,” said Beebe. “Three to five years from now, 100 percent of it is likely to go towards wastewater.”