WELLFLEET — One after another last week, town department heads detailed the painful cuts they would need to make if a proposed $518,820 Proposition 2½ override for operating expenses doesn’t pass at the June 11 town meeting.
Two alternative budgets for fiscal 2023, which starts on July 1, were placed on the warrant at the select board’s May 10 meeting: a budget that includes the override funds, and a “contingency” budget in case the override fails.
Proposition 2½ overrides require a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting and a majority at a town election, which will take place on June 21, 10 days after the meeting. Five separate overrides, totaling $1.77 million, have been proposed for this spring’s warrant and town election ballot.
The select board unanimously recommended the override budget and did not recommend the contingency budget. But the austere version must pass at town meeting as a stopgap, so the town government can continue to operate in case the override is defeated. Otherwise, the town would have to shut down all operations other than emergency services and the water system.
The Contingency Cuts
The austerity budget’s bottom line is $523,339 less than the regular budget’s, with the cuts allocated among various town departments.
“This was an awful ordeal to go through,” said interim Town Administrator Charles Sumner of the budget work. “I tried to avoid eliminating full-time positions. Really, your municipal budget and scope of municipal services is not that broad. You have a lot of people doing a lot of things. With one- or two-person departments, there’s not a lot of options to cut from.”
It would take several years to recover from such budget cutting, Sumner said, and would require future operating and capital budget overrides.
The contingency budget cuts $100,000 from human services, greatly reducing the town’s preschool tuition voucher program, which has been aiding families since 2015. “That painful cut would impact a minimum of 20 families every year,” said Director of Community Services Suzanne Grout Thomas.
A $19,000 cut in the recreation department budget would eliminate the afternoon program, “which accommodates kids ages five and up for working parents,” Grout Thomas said. The number of instructors at Gull Pond swimming lessons would be reduced.
“Drowning in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has gone up in the last two years,” said Grout Thomas. “It’s a basic local safety and health issue to make sure the kids are able to keep themselves safe in the water.”
Beach services would also be cut, Grout Thomas said, requiring her to dismiss staff 10 days before the end of the season and leaving beaches unguarded when sharks start coming to the area. “It’s where I could make a cut as opposed to cutting safety equipment,” she said.
A $104,700 reduction in the public works budget would cut the seasonal work force in half, cut contracted services, eliminate amnesty days at the transfer station, and reduce transfer station hours. The cuts would affect road maintenance, delay facility repairs, limit road striping, and require the department to cut back its support of other town departments, particularly on the beaches. “We’re already stretched thin as it is,” said DPW Director Jay Norton. “It would have a public safety impact.”
The $23,906 cut to the library “would involve people losing their jobs and closing the library on Monday,” said Library Director Jennifer Wertkin. The library is already closed on Sundays during half the year, meaning there will be no library services two days a week. More limited services would harm community members looking for jobs and students who depend on library computers for school work, Wertkin said.
The marina budget would be cut by $25,000, affecting seasonal staff and evening and weekend hours.
“There’s really nothing else to cut,” said Harbormaster William Sullivan. “We’re so thin and have a crumbling infrastructure already.”
The police and fire budgets would be reduced by $27,000 and $48,000, respectively, affecting training and equipment replacement.
“There’s risk and concern in these cuts, but everyone had to participate,” Sumner said. Other cuts included reducing part-time seasonal wages for the shellfish dept., reducing aquaculture supplies, eliminating the allowance to the Affordable Housing Trust, and reducing the town administrator consulting budget by $10,000, from $50,000 to $40,000.
In addition to the operating budget override, voters will be asked to approve a $672,700 override for the capital budget and smaller overrides to hire two new police officers and two new firefighters, paramedics, or EMTs. The fifth override would be to pay for a $2.2 million fire suppression system at the Wellfleet Elementary School.
If all five overrides pass, it would add $392 to the median property tax bill next year. The standard 2½-percent increase allowed under Proposition 2½ plus debt exclusions that were voted in previous years would add another $154 to the bill. The potential median tax increase would then total $546.
Sumner told the Independent that, in his experience, towns with good financial management have a general operating override every six to eight years.
Wellfleet voters have not been asked to approve a general operating override since fiscal year 2007, according to the state Dept. of Revenue’s municipal finance trends database. And that was for just $25,000. Eleven overrides have been proposed in the last 10 years; eight of them passed and three were defeated.