How Can Barnstable County Overcome Wastewater Sticker Shock?
By: Michael C. Bailey
According to Paul J. Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, when it comes to selling Cape Cod residents on wastewater management, “everyone wants to fix the problem until they see the price tag.”
That is, perhaps, no surprise considering how enormous that price tag could be. According to Robert Ciolek, an independent consultant working with the Cape Cod Water Protection Collaborative, the capital costs of regionwide sewering would be between $3.2 billion and $5.8 billion—a price range that does not take into consideration the ongoing operating costs of $40 million to $68 million each year.
The capital costs alone break down to up to $27,000 per person, or $33,000 per property, Mr. Ciolek told the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners this week. That, he added, is assuming that every person helped pay into such a project, which would not be the case; he said no more than half of all Cape residents—homeowners—would shoulder the financial burden.
Options for funding wastewater infrastructure include working within a town’s existing revenue streams, which Mr. Ciolek said, was, in the current economic climate, not viable; charging betterments, an approach he called “inherently inequitable” since betterments would be higher in less densely developed service districts; seeking a Proposition 2 1/2 override or debt exclusion, which he said was politically difficult to sell to voters; and increasing applicable rates and fees, which he called the most flexible and equitable route because every user would pay in.
He added that financial support through federal and state grants is unreliable because of lean government budgets—even though that has not stopped environmental agencies from handing down new and more restrictive water quality mandates.
“Hypocrisy does not seem to bother them,” Mr. Ciolek said. “They’re quite pleased to issue more and more extensive regulations and dictates that require this work to be done, while at the same time very easily eliminating grant funding for it.”
Mr. Ciolek said there were “clear advantages to regionalizing this problem,” such as keeping total costs down and improving water quality management efforts across the Cape. He characterized current town-level wastewater planning efforts as “all over the map…don’t be under the illusion that they’re all talking to one another or coordinating their planning, because they’re not.”
Yet Mr. Ciolek conceded that a major hurdle to overcome is fear among voters that a large, regional entity would cost towns local control. “Government here is very close to the people, and they feel comfortable with being able to call up their selectperson and chat,” he said, “and the notion of having some huge bureaucracy out there that they don’t control frightens them.”
William Doherty, chairman of the county commissioners, advocated for an “aggressive education program” in support of any wastewater management projects, but he admitted that “every education program we’ve been involved with has been effective up until the time we get to the bill.”
“Once the price tag shows up, there’s an incremental process that takes place” among project opponents, Mr. Niedzwiecki said. “The first thing that they do is question the science” behind any studies, “the second thing they do is question the engineering, and the third thing they do is vote no at Town Meeting, and that’s why we have a lawsuit.”
The lawsuit to which Mr. Niedzwiecki referred is pending litigation by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and Buzzards Bay Coalition over the region’s alleged failure to adequately address water quality issues. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary target of the pending lawsuit, which alleges that the EPA and Cape Cod have failed to meet their obligations under the federal Clean Water Act to control nitrogen loading in coastal embayments.
The county and the Cape Cod Commission have placed money into a special reserve account to deal with the lawsuit, should it move forward.
In the meantime, Mr. Niedzwiecki said county officials should plan to aggressively lobby members of the Cape’s House delegation to support $150,000 to fund a study of wastewater treatment options for the region and their associated costs.
The Senate’s version of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, approved last week, included the funding, which was not in the House version of the budget.
If approved in the final conference budget, the money would be included in the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s budget, and then administered to the Cape Cod Commission for the study itself, according to information provided by Senate President Therese M. Murray’s (D - Plymouth) office.
Mr. Niedzwiecki said he also plans to have existing water quality presentations updated and revamped as part of a renewed outreach and education effort.