City assembly rejects finance committee change and bottle ban

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Wastewater Planning Section Passed, Senior Center Renovation Continuation Passed, Union Contract Negotiations and Community Preservation Act Grant to Purchase Land in Tobey Farm were all passed at the Dennis town meeting this week. But a third time was no charm for some proposals.

Once again, a citizen petition to change the composition of Dennis’ finance committee from all appointed to majority elected was presented. He failed, 159 to 375.

The article sparked a lot of discussion about the committee. The seven members are appointed by the city moderator. The committee examines the financial articles and, with the small council, they establish the budget of the city. This is not unusual; the majority of municipal finance commissions operate exactly this way. The article proposed four elected members and three appointed members, so that the city electorate would have more of a say in the city budget. But why?

Cynthia Stead

The finance committee is sometimes given almost magical powers to control spending. But the Dennis finance committee mirrors the electorate, which has voted again and again for terms of reference that keep spending down and taxes as low as possible. The committee is advisory and its advice can and has been ignored by voters in the municipal assembly. But overall it was a bad night giving them Svengali-like powers in an effort to persuade voters at town meetings not to spend money.

As the articles were presented, it was explained why this budget item would not have an impact on the property tax rate.

The vote for the sewage treatment plant would not affect property taxes, as the money had been gradually set aside in a special fund over time, so there were already 7 millions of dollars available to start plans.

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Spending on upgrading ambulance computers, replacing beach stairs and buying a new tractor for the golf course cost $759,633 – all available through a transfer of funds already reserved.

Seven union contracts were settled with money that had been set aside over time, and the most recent set aside was instituted to fund future increases in retiree health insurance.

The results were clear. Overall, the city’s tax rate would be stable and still rank among the lowest in Massachusetts. Since property tax revenue is 90% residential, every penny voted also shows up on your neighbor’s tax bill, and they might struggle to afford it.

Dennis was never sucked into starting new programs, cheerfully shouting, “Business will pay for this!” like other nearby towns that will go unnamed but have twice the tax rate from such spending when business turns out not to be the piggy bank it was believed to be.

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It has been argued that an elected council would be more accountable to the voters. But will they be able to make decisions that will not pay off for several years, like those of the appointed board of directors? And what makes supporters think even more frugal people wouldn’t get elected? If there is a lack of comfort or confidence in the city moderator’s choices for these positions, why is he once again running unopposed for re-election? Wouldn’t it be easier to elect a new appointing authority instead of changing the structure of the municipal administration?

Other interesting ideas were discarded due to the length of the debate and the late hour.

A citizen petition called for our legislators to be petitioned to request that homeschooled children and those in accredited private schools be included in School Choice funding. Accredited home schooling is carefully regulated by the Department of Education for curriculum and quality, and after a period of home schooling imposed by COVID, this may be something parents might want to continue.

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Currently, about 70 families in the Dennis-Yarmouth area homeschool their children, but they pay all school expenses out of pocket as well as taxes to support the schools. Former State Representative Cleon Turner said it was a good question to ask and should be used as a springboard for this discussion.

Once again, the town meeting did not prove to be for the faint-hearted. Because no one was there to present the petition article on radioactive water in Cape Cod Bay, the article was not voted on.

After the failure of the article to change the appointed finance committee to an elected committee, about 60 voters got up and left. By the time the citizens’ petition to repeal the plastic water bottle ban emerged, the number of voters had dropped 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 roughly 60 who left would have voted to keep the ban in place.

The town hall is never over until it’s over. It’s a gift to live in a place where there is no town hall to fight because we are all town hall together.

Cynthia Stead is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times and can be reached at [email protected]

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