ORLEANS — What services are as basic to residents as the sea breezes they inhale just by living here? Which are the ones they should pay for each time they use them?
Selectmen spent an evening Nov. 28 delving into the old question of which town services should be supported by all taxpayers and which by user fees, searching for a combination that would take the pressure off an annual operating budget that can't keep pace with double-digit increases in benefits.
The board looked at 10 options for increasing revenue, including fee hikes, parking stickers, and a pay-as-you-throw (per bag of trash) option for the transfer station. They keyed off a fee schedule review prepared by Town Administrator John Kelly and Finance Director Cathy Doane that showed how much of their costs departments recover in revenue.
There was a wide range, from recreation's zero percent to the water department's 175 percent; the latter number includes non-debt-excluded borrowing.
“What we have here are a number of departments that have very limited ways to raise revenues,” Kelly told the board. “The selectmen's office is basically limited to licensing (fees). The board of health is limited to the fees they charge for inspections and other types of permits.” Kelly noted that fees have to follow “rules set by the (state) department of revenue and Massachusetts General Law, and town meeting established restrictions on fees selectmen can charge,” capping them at 5 percent unless that body approves.
“One item that comes up every year that the board has shied away from (is that) we don't charge anything for recreational programs, yet it's a pretty significant budget,” Kelly said. “Most of the towns on the Cape, Brewster in particular, have self-sustaining rec departments.”
“My knee-jerk reaction is that this is for the kids,” Selectman Mefford Runyon said. “I would love to grow the program. Maybe that would justify charging some money for it. The other towns are clearly charging.”
Other towns, Kelly noted, have converted to the pay-as-you-throw method for trash disposal, including Brewster, Sandwich, and Wellfleet. Users pay per bags of garbage they toss which, he said, tends to increase the amount of recycling, reduce the amount of solid waste, and reduce the impact on the operating budget and tax base. “It's a way for people to take ownership of the amount of waste they're generating and giving them an opportunity to save money by recycling.” Kelly said DPW/natural resources director Tom Daley, who's made the shift to pay-as-you-throw in three other towns, could make a presentation to selectmen and the board of health, which sets the rates. Earlier this year, the health board raised dump sticker fees to cover 80 percent of costs.
Selectmen decided to wait on increasing the local hotel/motel tax from 4 to the legal limit of 6 percent, pending statehouse action on legislation to start taxing short-term rentals.
“I do run a little Airbnb in my house, (but) I would still increase this to the max,” Runyon said of the existing tax. “I view this as money being paid by people outside of town.” Selectman Jon Fuller said the “only communications I've gotten from the hotel/motel group (is that) they're not in favor. I guess they see their clientele as looking at the bottom line, but when you do any of these anywhere, you get a room rate that says 'taxes additional.'”
Selectman Alan McClennen said total revenue from the local hotel/motel tax in 2013 was $204,000 and is $233,000 currently. “This tells us something about the hotel/motel business in Orleans; it's relatively stable. It's about a $5.7 million business.” If short-term rentals can be taxed similarly, he said, the town could realize another $600,000 in revenue.
Rock Harbor, with its recent makeover, “may be a place where we need to talk about an increase in dockage fees or parking meters to help with the maintenance of that bulkhead,” Fuller said. “Look what happened when we didn't maintain it over all those years because we didn't have the money, and then we had to replace the whole thing.” At present, Kelly said, “all of our town landings are open parking, first come first serve.” Half the slip holders at Rock Harbor, he said, are not Orleans residents, adding, “I know the dockage fee doesn't even cover 100 percent of operating expenses,” much less help with the cost of the recent rebuilding. But there's always a qualifier: Kelly said dockage at Rock Harbor “has gotten complicated because it's a tidal facility not available to access certain times of the day. That always has been the pushback on increasing dockage fees.”
Members of the board expressed interest in a resident parking sticker that could be used at beaches and town landings. “We call it a beach sticker to park,” Runyon said. “We could change it to a parking sticker to get parking at the beach and landings around town. If we did charge something relatively nominal, $10 or $20, for that sticker, that would qualify us to be eligible for grants.” Even if there's no charge, Runyon said, “I would still say let's get an Orleans sticker and have restrictions on who can park in designated areas around town.”
Selectmen asked Kelly to look into creating a general resident parking sticker and report back.
Asked for her recommendations, Doane said fees should cover all expenses for fee-based services such as recreation, beaches, the transfer station, and the over-sand program at Nauset. The alternative, she said, won't work. “We all understand that if you go away from fee-based and put everything on a tax increase, you're limited to 2½ percent, and expenses are going up by double digits.”