The wastewater planning article passed, the continued renovation to the senior center passed, the union contract negotiations and the Community Preservation Act grant to purchase land at Tobey Farm all passed at the Dennis town meeting this week. But a third time was not the charm for some proposals.
Once again, a citizen petition to change the composition of the Dennis Finance Committee from all appointed to majority elected was put forward. It failed, 159 to 375.
The article sparked a lot of discussion about the committee. All seven members are appointed by the town moderator. The committee examines financial articles, and, with the select board, they draw up the town budget. This is not unusual; the majority of town finance committees operate exactly this way. The article proposed four elected and three appointed members, so the town electorate would have more to say in the town budget. But why?
The finance committee is sometimes imbued with almost magical powers to control spending. But the Dennis Finance Committee mirrors the electorate, who have voted again and again for warrant articles that keep spending at a minimum and maintain the lowest tax rate possible. The committee is advisory, and its opinion can and has been ignored by town meeting voters. But overall it was a bad night to attribute them with Svengali-like powers in an effort to persuade town meeting voters not to spend money.
As article after article was introduced, it was explained why this budget item would not impact the property tax rate.
The vote to proceed with the wastewater plant would not impact property taxes because money had been gradually set aside in a special fund over time, so there was already $ 7 million available to begin the plans.
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Spending on ambulance computer upgrades, replacing beach staircases and buying a new tractor for the golf course cost $ 759,633 – all of which was available through a transfer from funds that had already been earmarked.
Seven union contracts were settled with money that had been set aside over time, and the newest set aside was instituted to fund future retiree health insurance increases.
The results were plain. Overall, the town tax rate would be stable and still rank as one of the lowest in Massachusetts. Given that property tax revenue is 90% residential, every penny voted shows up on your next-door neighbor’s tax bill, too, and they might have a hard time affording that.
Dennis has never been suckered into starting new programs, blithely crying, “Business will pay for it!” like other nearby towns that shall remain nameless but have a tax rate twice as high because of such spending when business turns out not to be the piggy bank it was thought to be.
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The point was made that an elected board would be more answerable to the voters. But will they be able to make decisions that won’t pay off for several years like those of the appointed board has? And what makes the proponents think that even more frugal people would not be elected? If there is a lack of comfort or confidence in the choices of the town moderator for these positions, why is he once again running unopposed for reelection? Wouldn’t it be easier to elect a new appointing authority instead of changing the structure of town government?
There were other interesting ideas that got sidelined due to the length of the debate and the lateness of the hour.
A citizen petition asked that our legislators be petitioned to ask that homeschooled children and those at accredited private schools be included in School Choice funding. Accredited homeschooling is carefully regulated by the Department of Education for curriculum and quality, and after a period of COVID enforced at-home schooling, this may be something that parents might want to continue.
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At this time about 70 families in the Dennis-Yarmouth region are homeschooling children, but they pay all school expenses out of pocket as well as taxes to support schools. Former state Rep. Cleon Turner said it was a good question to ask, and it should be used as a springboard for that discussion.
Once again, town meeting proved not for the faint-hearted. Because nobody was there to present the petition article about radioactive water in Cape Cod Bay, the article was not voted on.
After the article to change the appointed finance committee to an elected one failed once again, about 60 voters got up and left. By the time the citizen petition to repeal the plastic water bottle ban came up, the number of voters had dwindled to 442. The plastic water bottle ban was repealed by 11 votes, 222 for and 211 against. It is not unreasonable to assume that of the 216 people who voted to change the finance committee, at least 12 of the 60 or so who left would have voted to keep the ban in place.
Town meeting is never over until it’s over. It’s a gift to live in a place where there is no city hall to fight because we are all city hall together.
Cynthia Stead is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.