It’s looking like we have our first hot-button issue of the year for the county-level campaigns: the Cape Cod Regional Wastewater Authority.
Various parties have emerged to roundly curse this proposal, and two candidates for the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners — Ronald R. Beaty Jr. and Eric R. Steinhilber, both of Barnstable — have voiced their staunch opposition to the concept.
In a speech delivered at his recent campaign kick-off, Mr. Steinhilber said this:
“Is it the proper role of the County to create a massive new government authority, an MWRA for the Cape, to take over all aspects of our water and sewer systems when other environmentally sound, cost-effective solutions exist? Is it the proper role of the County or its newly created authority to have taxation powers to potentially impose billions in new taxes and fees on the already overtaxed, over worked people of Cape Cod?”
And Mr. Beaty has made several unfavorable public comments about the authority, most recently in an op-ed piece entitled “A Cape Cod regional sewer authority…or an idea that stinks of a power grab?”:
When considering the creation of an independent, taxpayer funded, unaccountable & bureaucratic Cape Cod Regional Wastewater Authority, along with its hugely expensive large scale centralized wastewater processing facilities, Cape Codders need to be honestly informed that these are not the only choices available to them and their respective municipalities.
So, just how badly is the Cape Cod Wastewater Authority going to screw taxpayers? How much of a bureaucratic nightmare is it going to be?
That’s a tough question to answer considering that the authority, despite Mr. Steinhilber’s claim, does not exist — and might never exist.
The “Cape Cod Wastewater Authority” entered the region’s consciousness during a series of meetings held between October 2011 and February 2012 by the Special Commission on County Governance, a 26-member group formed through a directive by the county commissioners. The group’s charge was to examine the current state of county government, in all aspects, and submit recommendations for how to improve county functions.
The final report, released last week and available online, lists wastewater as its second topic, and the formal recommendation is, in full:
Recommendation: We strongly and unanimously recommend that the Barnstable County Commissioners, working with the Cape Cod legislative delegation through an open and public process, seek special legislation establishing the Cape Cod Wastewater District. The Commissioners should charge the Executive Director of the Cape Cod Commission and the Executive Director of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative with developing recommendations on the structure, powers, and funding mechanisms of the District.
The recommendation also comes with five additional points of recommended consideration. Among them: whether the district (not “authority”) should be separate, independent entity and not part of county government proper; and the development of “fair, broad-based funding mechanisms that take into account funds already invested by towns on infrastructure that could assist regional solutions.”
The county commissioners, at their February 29, well in advance of the official submission of the final report, heeded one part of the recommendation and charged Andrew Gottlieb and Paul J. Niedzwiecki, executive directors of, respectively, the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative and the Cape Cod Commission, with conducting a formal exploration of the concept.
To repeat: the commissioners approved exploring the concept; they did not approve the creation of a regional wastewater authority, and by extension, did not approve a formal administrative structure, a funding mechanism, or a plan to address wastewater needs on a regional basis — nor did they express support for any of these things.
Mary L. (Pat) Flynn, chairman of the county commissioners, very clearly said that any new entity would not be created with the snap of the commissioners’ collective fingers, stating:
“To make a decision to move forward, without any public discussion or without any public input on voting to recommend a regional plan that includes a taxing authority, at this time would not be very wise and I don’t think would show good leadership on our part.”
Mr. Gottlieb and Mr. Niedzwiecki told the commissioners that they would conduct a lengthy public process that would, maybe, yield a final recommendation from them by the end of 2012 — about the same time the two agencies expect to wrap up their work on a regional wastewater plan the two bodies have been working on “for a couple years now,” according to Mr. Niedzwiecki.
Many of the more controversial talking points being thrown about by opponents stem from elements of the debate within the special commission. At the special commission’s February 8 meeting, according to official meeting minutes, Mr. Gottlieb opined that:
A separate regional entity is needed to address wastewater issues, as individual town solutions would be less efficient, since estuaries are shared, and artificial town boundaries interfere and increase costs of addressing nitrogen‐loading. While inter‐municipal agreements could be possible, Mr. Gottlieb said they are seldom initiated, and the 15 towns have difference issues and funding resources that are not all equivalent. Elsewhere, he noted, wastewater facilities are regional, and the County role is needed here beyond the existing County structure.
Mr. Niedzwiecki chimed in on the funding issue, saying a “broad‐based funding source that would be fair to all” would be necessary to fund the operation of a regional entity, and that “in reviewing funding options, Mr. Niedzwiecki called betterments an inequitable and irresponsible approach, preferring the general tax levy as a better approach.”
In other words, instead of placing the burden on property owners through betterments, the cost would be spread across the region’s tax base so, in effect, all taxpayers would chip in.
At no point in the conversation was a recommendation made to have the entire region’s wastewater infrastructure tied into, as Mr. Beaty put it, “hugely expensive large scale centralized wastewater processing facilities.”
One fact is irrefutable: the Cape Cod Wastewater Authority/District does not exist. It has not been created, and based on the comments and plans outlined by various county officials, it will not exist at any point in 2012.
What form it will take in the end is at present a mystery. While it has been suggested — officially and on the record — that the authority be an independent entity run by an appointed board and funded by taxpayer money, all these are are suggestions — suggestions that are already being thoroughly scrutinized by skeptics, and will continue to be scrutinized as the county proceeds with its exploration of the concept. Nothing is a done deal.
Even if the “nightmare scenario” as presented by Mr. Beaty and Mr. Steinhilber of an autonomous, tax-funded entity that rules the Cape’s wastewater systems with an iron fist is presented to residents, it will likely need legislation to become reality, possibly even a binding referendum question on the ballot, providing the public with additional opportunities to oppose the project if the final product is not to their liking.
Mr. Beaty and Mr. Steinhilber are turning the wastewater authority concept into their personal campaign boogeyman to scare voters, plying fears of costly taxpayer-funded government takeovers with no accountability in order to rally support. This may serve their respective immediate personal needs, but does Cape Codders no favors in the long run if they befuddle any attempts at honest debate.
Water quality management is perhaps one of the Cape’s most pressing issues, one that impacts individual towns and the region as a whole, and tackling this particular 800-pound gorilla requires thorough exploration, a healthy sense of skepticism from all parties, perhaps a few hard decisions, and most importantly, information based in fact, not fear.
Tags: Andrew Gottlieb, Barnstable County commissioners, Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Wastewater Authority, Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, Eric Steinhilber, Mary Pat Flynn, Paul Niedzwiecki, Ronald Beaty Jr., Special Commission on County Governance
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.