The voters of Orleans turned out in high numbers to purchase and protect more valuable open space and to approve an additional $12 million to fully fund higher than expected construction costs for their wastewater program. Conservation land purchases are always a cause for celebration as the need for public spaces grows and development pressures fragment the land. Congratulations are in order for all the local organizers of this impressive effort, and I would be remiss in not highlighting the energy, vision and skill brought to this effort by former APCC president and board member Robert Cunningham.
The approval of the wastewater spending is among the more significant positives on the Cape this year. Again led by an important APCC alum, former selectman and former APCC president Alan McClennan, Orleans aggressively and creatively utilized the new finance tools available to all Cape towns–dedication of new short term rental tax receipts to wastewater, state zero-percent interest SRF loans, principal forgiveness from the new Cape and Islands Water Protection Fund–to develop a finance plan that minimized reliance on local property taxes as a funding mechanism. Last year, the people of Orleans rewarded the vision and courage of their elected leaders by overwhelmingly approving the long-discussed wastewater program.
The whole program could have hit the rocks, though, when the bids came in high because of construction uncertainty in the time of Covid-19. At a time when many towns would have feared going back to the voters for additional funding authorization, Orleans’ current board of selectmen trusted the commitment of town citizens to the issue and retained faith in the underlying strength of their finance plan and went back to the voters. Kudos to the voters and their elected leaders for maintaining their commitment to clean water and voting “yes” again. The project can now proceed, and because of the finance plan’s reliance on non-property tax revenues, the impact on the local taxes of the town is minimal.
The lessons here are many. Leadership and creativity are essential and Orleans has laid out a good local model that is easily adapted to other towns here on Cape Cod. Trust in the voters to maintain a commitment to clean water is a good bet. The people of Cape Cod are ahead of the elected leadership in their desire for, and willingness to spend to achieve, clean water. The financial tools given to the towns by the State Legislature over the last decade work as intended and provide real property tax relief to voters–and the voters understand that new reality.
After many decades of delay, the clean water ball is finally rolling down the hill. The people of Cape Cod have made it clear that they expect towns to move forward with implementation of long discussed plans and have put their money where their mouth is. Rather than being punished for putting these complex projects before voters, elected officials are now going to be punished for not moving these projects forward to voters for approval. The world has indeed changed, and this time for the better.