SEPTIC SPOTLIGHT

CAPE COD IS CLEANING UP ITS ACT

New financing is boosting waste water treatment

WRITTEN BY:  WENDY NORTHCROSS,  ANDREW GOTTLIEB and  JEFF MAHONEY

May 19, 2021

What has long loomed as an existential threat to the economy and vibrancy of Cape Cod—septic-system pollution and runoff that ruins our bays, rivers, and lakes—is a challenge Cape communities can meet and are meeting with affordable, sustainable new cleanup initiatives.

That’s the inspiring lesson Cape Codders can and should take from several pieces of great news this spring.

Mashpee town meeting voters on May 3 unanimously approved $54 million for the first phase of a town wastewater treatment and sewer system that won’t require any local tax increases. Similarly, without requiring additional taxes, Orleans last year launched construction of its $38 million wastewater treatment plant, connecting to a $21 million new network of sewers in the heart of town.

Those moves came after Falmouth successfully connected hundreds of homes in its Little Pond and Maravista neighborhoods to new municipal sewers, in projects that came in on time and under budget. Harwich’s sewer system, which connects to Chatham’s recently enhanced wastewater treatment plant, is also well underway.

For years, progress on reversing the Cape’s water-quality crisis was halting, at best, and marked by more litigation than construction, more angst than action.

What’s changed decisively in the last years is the availability of new funding streams that don’t rely on additional property taxes, along with many examples of nimble and taxpayer-friendly financial thinking by local officials.

Key to getting the Mashpee and Orleans projects underway has been the 2019 launch of the Cape Cod and Islands Water Protection Fund (WPF). Coupled with the expansion of the hotel/motel tax to home rentals, the WPF is funded by a 2.75 percent excise tax on short term rentals and traditional hotel/B&B overnight stays. It ensures that visitors to the Cape who contribute to demand for clean water and the need for wastewater treatment pay, alongside Cape residents, their fair share of what it costs to achieve those important objectives.

The WPF represents a truly elegant solution: The very thing that makes Cape Cod so attractive to visitors–our bays and beaches and rivers and lakes and ponds–and has been so threatened by intense levels of use, visitors are now helping pay to protect. The fund is now generating tens of millions of dollars annually to help towns pay for water protection and taking significant pressure off Cape Cod taxpayers to solve the clean-water crisis.

The WPF recently awarded $71 million to eight Cape towns, effectively providing $71 million in local property tax relief to those towns.

Also proving key are the availability of zero-interest loans from the Massachusetts Water Trust and growing examples of innovative fiscal thinking by local Cape officials.

Mashpee town leaders, for example, helped secure overwhelming support for their clean water work by proposing that Town Meeting reduce the Community Preservation Act levy in the town by 1 percent while creating a new Water Infrastructure Investment Fund to make the project work financially and politically. (When, by the way, was the last time you heard of a Massachusetts town meeting voting unanimously … for anything?)

Yarmouth voters on Tuesday approved by a 76 percent vote a 0.78 percent local tax surcharge for a Water Infrastructure Investment Fund—a $39-a-year increase for a homeowner with a $5,000 annual tax bill, also partially offset by a CPA levy reduction—that will help Yarmouth complete critically needed clean-water and wastewater treatment projects.

The bottom line: For years Cape Cod has agonized over what looked like the ongoing and inevitable loss of our beautiful waters, fish, and shellfish to algae blooms and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and the threat of massive, costly, court-ordered solutions.

Now, with major funding streams like the visitor-supported Cape Cod and Islands Water Protection Fund in place and towns gaining experience in sustainable funding approaches that local taxpayers can afford, Cape Cod is taking control of its destiny. Working together, we’re addressing the crisis and building a brighter and cleaner future for every resident, visitor, and business owner on our uniquely beautiful peninsula home.

 

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