Assembly Passes Amendment to Reduce County Budget By $74,000

The county Assembly of Delegates passed an amendment to the FY2015 operating and capital budget that, if approved by the Board of Regional Commissioners, will reduce the budget by $74,314. 

The amendment was proposed by delegate Deborah McCutcheon of Truro at Wednesday’s meeting, during which the delegates voted to reconsider the proposed budget that was rejected two weeks ago. Finance director E. Mark Zielinski was invited to the meeting to answer questions regarding the county’s financial relationship with various quasi-county agencies and organizations, such as the Cape Light Compact (CLC).

Mr. Zielinski explained that compact employees—who are considered county employees—are paid biweekly through a county payroll checking account, then those paychecks are reimbursed by the compact. But the budget does not reflect those payments.

“As someone who’s up here representing Barnstable County and has a fiduciary responsibility to Barnstable County, I think that the budget should reflect that there is money going out to employees of Barnstable County and that money is going out and being reimbursed by these companies that are on the books for those salaries,” Harwich delegate Leo G. Cakounes said.

Mr. Zielinski explained that county does not use county funds to pay for compact salaries—the state, the Department of Public Utilities, and the Department of Energy Resources do that. Some grant-funded employees are paid similarly and  may not appear in the budget, either.

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“I just believe in true disclosure, “Mr. Cakounes responded.

The delegate also questioned whether the county could be reimbursed for services, especially those involving the finance and information technology departments, that it provides for the compact.

Mr. Zielinski said that he was open to the notion of charging the compact and other appropriate organizations an administrative fee for county services. However, he said that would have to be approved by the compact, so it might be a better discussion for the next fiscal year.

Ms. McCutcheon was opposed to a 2.5 percent county tax assessment increase that was included in the budget.

“We heard from our accountant that last year there was a surplus of $1.6 million,” she said. “Why was it deemed necessary to increase the tax assessment this year in the budget?”

The money from last year’s surplus was divvied up into reserve accounts that were set up by the county, Mr. Zielinski said. Over the last several years, the county has chosen not to take the 2.5 percent increase.

Falmouth delegate Julia C. Taylor said that she agreed with the tax increase.

“As we all know, expenses have risen more than 2.5 percent in all the [Cape] towns,” she said.

Referring to the questions raised about CLC, speaker Ronald Bergstrom of Chatham said that the issue with the compact and other similar agencies was the county’s lack of oversight over them.

For delegate Cheryl Andrews of Provincetown, the fundamental concern was the lack of a distinction between fiscal agent and employer in the county’s relationship with CLC.

“The bottom line is that we have a relationship with these people,” she said. “We may not have control over the dollars but it is certainly a part of the county’s finances.”

County Commissioner Sheila R. Lyons of Wellfleet, who attended the meeting, was allowed to speak before the assembly.

She suggested that if the delegates had questions regarding the compact, they invite the original founders of the compact to speak with them.

“They were trying to do great things for a region that wanted those things and they were trying to make it work by not eating, basically, and the county has always put itself behind for the benefit of these regional projects,” she said. “And when you think of the surplus[es], there could have been better ways to have thought about them than that they were just Band-Aids given out to people as opposed to strategic planning.”

Furthermore, she said, being attached to county government opens the compact to a level of public openness. The reason why questions were raised about the compact was because there were not many questions raised when wind turbines were originally introduced to the region.

Mr. Bergstrom interrupted her.

“The reason Mark [Zielinski] is here today is because we want to get an idea of the carrying costs of our providing these services,” he said. “We just want to know what extents the county goes to by offering our services as the fiscal agents of these organizations.”

Some of the delegates agreed that it might be a good idea to map out the roles of various entities within the county.

During a public comment session, speakers lauded the delegates for raising questions about the compact’s finances.

“They [CLC and Cape & Vineyard Electric Cooperative, Inc.] claim that they are  quasi-government entities not answerable to the public or even the Assembly of Delegates,” resident Lilli-Ann Green of Wellfleet said. “If something does go wrong, if there’s a shortfall especially of CVEC and their multi-million dollar ventures, do these entities all of a sudden become county government entities, so the taxpayers shoulder the mistakes?”

Eric Bibler, a Cape visitor, recommended that the assembly quantify the services that they provide for the compact and decided whether to charge for them. Additionally, he drew attention to the county’s Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) obligations that have yet to be paid. He previously thought that the county’s liability was $50 to 60 million, but after attending a county commissioners meeting that day, discovered it was closer to $35 million. The county should find out whether they or the compact are responsible for making those OPEB payments, he said.

After the delegates voted to reconsider the budget, Ms. McCutcheon proposed an amendment to delete the tax assessment increase, resulting in a reduction of revenue of $74,314. The county would compensate for the decrease in revenue by reducing the information technology budget by $35,000 and the Cape Cod Commission’s budget increase for joint initiatives with the county by $39,314, she said.

Some delegates argued that the tax assessment increase was a common practice among towns, while others, like Ms. McCutcheon and Yarmouth delegate E. Suzanne McCauliffe, said that they believed the increase was inappropriate.

The amendment to propose the ordinance passed, with 69.67 percent approval, 26.33 percent denial, and 4 percent absent; the motion to approve the FY15 budget as amended passed, 90.33 percent approval, 5.67 percent denial and 4 percent absent.

The amended budget will be proposed for approval at the county commissioners meeting. If the amended budget is rejected, the commissioners’ original proposal automatically passes.

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