By MICHAEL C. BAILEY
In 2010, Eric R. Steinhilber tried his hand at state politics, running for the open State Senator of the Cape and Islands seat. This year he’s focusing his efforts more locally as he runs for one of two spots on the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners.
“Bottom line is, I just want to serve the community and be involved, do what I can to help and bring about better solutions,” Mr. Steinhilber said. “I just care a lot about the Cape. I’ve got two little kids now, and I want to make sure the Cape’s just as special for them as it was for me growing up.”
He added that he opted against running again for state senate because the incumbent, State Senator Daniel A. Wolf (D – Harwich), “is a millionaire. I got to work for a living, and sometimes you’re going to have a tough time raising more money than what a millionaire can put into a race.”
Mr. Steinhilber said he would be a proactive commissioner who would “see each side of the issue and come to a solution that I feel is grounded in the principle of doing the most good in the most effective manner with the smallest amount of governor.”
“I think that type of leadership is really needed at the county level right now. I think it’s lacking,” he said.
That lack of leadership is most evident in the county’s handling of the wastewater issue, Mr. Steinhilber said, and he has made that the focus of his campaign.
Although the sitting commissioners, including his two opponents Mary L. (Pat) Flynn and Sheila R. Lyons, have voiced their opposition to a proposed “wastewater authority” with taxation powers, Mr. Steinhilber insisted he was “the only candidate in the race that can be counted 100 percent to be opposed to a taxing authority being created and imposed on the people of Cape Cod.”
“I think the proposal is alive and well. I think it’s still being pushed by a number of individuals,” he said, “and I think it is more likely to come to pass if the incumbent county commissioners remain.”
He said evidence of the sitting commissioners’ openness to the concept can be found in their February vote to charge Andrew Gottlieb and Paul J. Niedzwiecki, respectively the executive directors of the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative and the Cape Cod Commission, with exploring the concept, which had been pitched to the commissioners by the Special Commission on County Governance.
“I would have voted not to move the ball even further toward a taxing authority,” Mr. Steinhilber said, adding that by voting on the topic before the special commission had formally filed its final report with the commissioners was proof that “the county commissioners, I felt, couldn’t wait to get their hands on it to vote on it…they were excited to vote for it.”
He said the commissioners, despite their prior opposition, would be likely to accept a new recommendation he expects to emerge from a new task force assembled by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce — as task force that, like the special commission, is fronted by Robert A. O’Leary.
A task force memo obtained by Mr. Steinhilber noted that the group wants to emphasize “positive messaging during the county commissioners’ election,” and the candidate believed the task force “feels they have a much better chance of getting a taxing authority in place with the two incumbents remaining.”
“I’ve been told by others in county government that this group was formed in direct response to my campaign,” Mr. Steinhilber said, but he declined to name his sources.
Better Communication Needed
Mr. Steinhilber also objected to another proposal by the special commission, to combine the county commissioners and the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates into a single seven-member board with legislative functions. Executive functions now possessed by the county commissioners would be transferred to an appointed county executive.
“You can’t get better government with less representation,” he said, and he expressed admiration for the assembly’s performance, but acknowledged that the delegates — as well as the county commissioners — are not as visible in the community as they should be.
“It’s a communication problem,” Mr. Steinhilber said, and if elected he planned to hold public office hours to create a stronger connection with individual towns.
The candidate did support, conditionally, a proposal by the assembly to create a finance director to keep better control of county finances. Mr. Steinhilber said such an entity was necessary for enhanced transparency, but he thought such a position could be established using existing county personnel and resources.
“I don’t think we should create a brand new position out of whole cloth,” he said. “You can’t keep adding to county government. You need to come up with solutions inside of county government.”
Opposes New County Dispatch
Mr. Steinhilber also wanted to tackle what he regarded as a financial time bomb, the county government’s growing unfunded pension liability. “No one seems to be talking about it,” he said, quoting figures stating that the county’s liability between 2002 and 2010 jumped from $190 million to $475 million.
A report prepared by the Segal Group showed that the unfunded liability was expected to grow by another $25 million between 2010 and 2012, but actually increased by $47 million.
“That’s all on the backs of Cape taxpayers,” Mr. Steinhilber said, and he vowed to take action on that.
He identified another brewing taxpayer expense in the effort to establish a regional 911 emergency dispatch center that served all of the Cape’s police and fire departments. Mr. Steinhilber strongly endorsed the basic concept, but said there was a better way to make the concept reality than creating an all-new regional dispatch center.
“My main concern is that the county doesn’t get into a position where they build a center from the ground up” rather than take advantage of the existing emergency dispatch center run by the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department — where, notably, Mr. Steinhilber has worked as a reserve deputy.
“We already have a top-notch center that’s run by the county sheriff,” he said, and he noted the sheriff’s department is in the middle of a hardware upgrade and is exploring options for expanding the facility in order to serve more towns.
Local law enforcement department heads have expressed concern over this approach due to the fact the sheriff’s department, and by extension its dispatch center, are state agencies, and they fear losing any local control over the center.
Other Massachusetts counties have established governance boards to keep control of regional dispatch centers at the local level, Mr. Steinhilber said, and Cape Cod could emulate such models.
Mr. Steinhilber said he wanted to address the regulations that deter new businesses from setting up shop on Cape Cod. In speaking with business owners, he said he heard a great deal of frustration due to the sometimes convoluted and multi-layered process of establishing a new business, which included dealing with multiple town boards and, in some cases, the Cape Cod Commission.
“To a lot of them it feels like a constant maze to navigate…it’s tough to get quick decisions,” he said, and he wanted to constantly review regulations to make local and regional review processes more streamlined and business-friendly.
He doubted that the launch of the OpenCape regional fiber optic broadband network would prove a potential boon to businesses. “I don’t necessarily know if OpenCape going to be a big part of that. I don’t think people are not opening a business because they don’t have access to the Internet,” he said. “Call Comcast to get the Internet.”
Mr. Steinhilber said he was undecided whether to support the county’s possible purchase of the Dennis-based Aquacultural Research Corporation (ARC), which has been pitched by its current owners as a possible county service. While supportive of the local shellfishing industry, Mr. Steinhilber said he was wary of the $4 million suggested purchase price.
He proposed forming a county subcommittee to review the finances of the business and the proposal to determine if it would be a worthy return on the county’s investment.
For more information on the candidate, visit Mr. Steinhilber’s official campaign website at www.ericforcc.com.