Barnstable county commissioners object to price range cuts by Meeting

The Assembly of Delegates voted Wednesday, May 25, to override the Barnstable County Commissioners’ veto of the assembly’s proposed budget cuts of $834,000.

The commissioners objected to the cuts from their originally submitted budget of $22.2 million for fiscal 2023, made at the assembly’s May 4 meeting. They thought this would damage essential services, eliminate previously approved positions and cost the county revenue.

The AOD’s May 25 meeting was delayed until 4:35 to allow everyone to join the online meeting.

What does the Assembly of Delegates do for the Cape?

According to its website, the Assembly of Delegates works with the Board of County Commissioners to manage regional services in Barnstable County, which serves all 15 peninsula Cape communities. 

Why does the Assembly want to cut the county budget?

“Regardless of how the vote goes this afternoon, I look forward to in-depth discussion,” Commissioner Ron Bergstrom told the AOD at the beginning of the meeting. “Ultimately it’s the people we represent that will make the decision how we go forward financing the operation of Barnstable County.”

“I think it would be a grave mistake not to override this veto,” Deputy Speaker Mary Chaffee of Brewster said, kicking off the discussion. “The override gives us flexibility as we go forward. The county commissioners can come back before us with funding requests and we can evaluate those and approve supplemental budgets. If we adopt the larger budget, we can’t in a few months have another conversation and trim it again.”

Susan Warner, the delegate from Yarmouth, noted the proposed budget was 11% more than the fiscal 2022 budget of $20 million.

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“In reducing it by $834,000, that brought it to increase to 6.9%,” Warner said. “It’s imperative we act fiscally responsible. Utility expenses are rising. Inflation is on the rise. COVID has worn down our resources. Throughout this year was a difficult budget process. The assembly has done that to provide checks and balances. We considered everything we were given. Let’s vote for the override and promise not to be afraid to make difficult decisions.”

Several delegates noted the county has benefited from a two-year spike in real estate prices. The county budget is funded primarily by a deeds excise tax on transactions. That brought in $11.7 million in fiscal 2021 and $17.7 million for fiscal 2022. With interest rates on the rise, they worried revenue would fall dramatically.

“The revenue sources are highly risky at this time,” Dave Dunford, of Orleans, said. “An increase in the excise tax is problematic at this time.”

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Not everyone was on board.

“I cannot go along with the amended budget,” said Sallie Tighe, of Truro, after praising the assembly’s hard work.

“I also do not support the override,” Brian O’Malley agreed. “The message we’re sending with the override is general disapproval. It’s not specific. The finance committee did not recommend any of the cuts we made. The budget was crafted in good faith by the commissioners to do the work thrust upon us the past two years.”

O’Malley added that while the residential real estate market may be “tapped out,” the commercial market is still strong.

“We’re cutting back essential services at a time we’re not squeezed. I think it’s the wrong time to do that,” O’Malley added.

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Last year the county receipts were $29.5 million, well in excess of their budget – but that surplus is largely due to a $6 million increase in the county excise taxes.

All of the other delegates, except one, favored the override, noting that supplemental requests could address the concerns. Three delegates, Terrance Gallagher of Eastham, Tighe, and O’Malley voted no but the AOD is population-weighted so that tally was 94.8% in favor of the override, easily surpassing the required two-thirds.

Commissioners reject Assembly of Delegates’ budget cuts

The three commissioners had voted 3-0 to reject the AOD’s amended budget with the cuts at their May 23 meeting.

Commission Chair Sheila Lyons detailed a list of objections to the AOD’s cuts and on May 26, the commissioners vowed to keep fighting the cuts.

The AOD “did not provide a report explaining the reasons for each recommendation that differs from the recommendation of the commissioners as required by the county charter,” Lyons said.  

She also said the AOD’s process deviated from the budget development process described in the charter.

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“There was no public consultation of which areas of the budget should be cut and why,” she said. “(There was no) identification of the proposed cuts prior to the May 4 meeting. Administration and staff were only informed after the meeting was underway. The people of Barnstable County have a right to know why the assembly has proposed cuts.”

The commissioners also argued the increase was 6.4%, not 11%, because the AOD had approved supplemental budgets last year and additional revenues came in.

Lyons noted three positions that were eliminated were approved by the AOD last year, The loss of information technology positions would prohibit the county from providing promised services to Harwich and Bourne and cost the county between $143,000 to $258,000 in needed revenue.  

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In addition to the excise tax, the county derives revenue from services ($1.2 million), business at the Registry of Deeds ($2.2 million in FY22), and by renting the Court House ($1.8 million in FY22).

Lyons also said cutting a $93,000 resource officer would make it difficult to pursue and manage federal and state funding for wastewater, broadband, PFAS groundwater pollution, affordable housing and other topics.

They also enumerated many concerns with other smaller reductions and sent the AOD a letter explaining that prior to the AOD’s veto override.

“Today the County Commissioners vowed to fight the cuts, to honor all service contracts,” the commissioners wrote in a press release May 26. 

They will discuss their plans at their next meeting on Wednesday, June 1.

“We will continue to work diligently in the coming weeks to secure those funds,” Lyons added. “It is critical that the county honor all its service agreements to Cape towns.”