The following is the second part of a Letter to the Editor from John Waterman; the first part is available in the January 14, 2021 edition:
Other Sources of Revenue: Almost two years ago, Mr. Rasmussen first suggested to us the idea of subsidizing the operation of our wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) through general tax revenues. At that time, he mentioned Falmouth as an example. We looked into what Falmouth was financing with general tax revenues and we considered this approach. Now, he mentions Chatham. There, however, is no free pot of money; at least Marion doesn’t have one. The real question is, who pays? Does the entire town of Marion pay to run our WWTP, or only residents connected to the sewer pay? What is fair?
After looking at Falmouth we concluded, in order to justify the use of general tax revenues to finance our WWTP, we would need to be able to demonstrate a broad benefit to the community. In our opinion, the current upgrades to the WWTP do not meet that test. On the other hand, we sought and received voter approval to pay for the Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan (CWMP) through an override to raise general tax revenues. The CWMP is a 20-year roadmap for managing wastewater for our entire community, including identifying and prioritizing areas to extend the sewer. This was easy to justify as benefiting the entire community.
But there are other issues. Not only are our sewer fees high, but our real estate taxes are high due to our small tax base. There also are considerations, such as the non-profits in Town. They pay sewer fees, but they don’t pay general taxes.
Chatham is building a new wastewater treatment plant with the intention to sewer much of the town. A new plant with plans to sewer much of the town easily would meet our test of providing broad community benefit. There also is talk of connecting Harwich Port into the new plant, which would provide broader based support for the cost of the plant. Chatham has a much larger tax base, therefor more room to raise taxes. Using the most current state numbers available online, the assessed value of Chatham’s real estate is $7.9 billion, its population is 6,160, the average real estate tax per household is $4,842, and per capita income is $53,719.
How does that compare with Marion? The assessed value of Marion’s real estate is only $1.9 billion, its population is 5,143, the average real estate tax per household is $7,371, and per capita income is $54,984.
Chatham’s tax base is more than four times Marion’s, but its population is only about 20% bigger. With about the same average income as Marion, the average household in Chatham pays 34% less in real estate taxes. Thus, Chatham has many more degrees of freedom than Marion to raise money off its general tax base.
In Marion, 93% of the tax burden falls on the residential taxpayers, who make up only 37% of the Town’s land use. Marion lacks any meaningful commercial/industrial base. Marion’s tax problem is aggravated by the fact that 34% of the land area is permanently conserved and pays no taxes. The recent purchase of the Hoff property and BBC accepting ownership of three prime building lots on Point Road only make the problem worse. We continue to shrink our tax base, further increasing the burden on our residential taxpayers.
Mr. Rasmussen also points to the Sandwich Water Infrastructure Investment Fund. That Town implemented a 2% property tax surcharge for this fund. In order to sell it to voters, it reduced the property tax surcharge collected under the Community Preservation Act (CPA) from 3% to 2%, so the net increase to voters was only 1%. Sandwich’s 2% surcharge for its Infrastructure Fund, in our view, is just a tax increase under another name. All it does is lock in funds for a specific purpose, giving the voters less control over this spending in the future. It is not found money.
Marion’s CPA property tax surcharge is only 2%, not 3%. Every year we have people lining up requesting funds for a wide range of projects beneficial to the town. Many of these projects would not get funding without CPA funds. If available CPA funds were reduced, we would have to find other sources of funding for projects, such as redoing the exterior of the Town House, which was funded with CPA funds (and some generous help from the Sippican Historical Society). The need for CPA funded projects would not go away. Using CPA funds to subsidize the improvements to the wastewater treatment plant would crowd out other important projects and would not give the town a new source of revenue.
Non-profits such as Tabor and, yes, the BBC, pay sewer and water fees. They do not pay real estate taxes. Shifting part of the cost burden of our WWTP from the Sewer Enterprise Fund to general tax revenues lets these non-profits off the hook. There is real money at stake here. For FY 2019, the last full fiscal year we have numbers for, Tabor paid over $430,000 in sewer and water fees. Using general tax revenues to subsidize the Sewer Enterprise Fund effectively would be giving non-profits such as Tabor and BBC a discount on their sewer and water bills at the expense of the Marion taxpayers.
Needed Support from the BBC: We have not been sitting on our hands. We previously considered all of Mr. Rasmussen’s suggestions. All his ideas simply having us looking in different pockets for the money when, ultimately, the money comes from the same taxpayers, whose real estate taxes, and sewer and water fees, are already too high. This is why Marion desperately needs outside funding— either grants or state funding— to help mitigate the cost of these upgrades to the WWTP.
Over the past several years, we asked BBC for help in obtaining grant funding and state financial support. They have not helped to date. In addition, we asked them whether it made sense to consider regionalizing the Marion WWTP, for example, to tie-in Rochester and parts of Mattapoisett and Wareham. (Among many reasons, it would be much less expensive to extend Marion’s current outfall, which surfaces in a brook short of Aucoot Cove, out into Buzzards Bay than for Wareham to build a new outfall from their plant to the canal.) BBC, to our knowledge, has not followed up on this idea. We need BBC to be a partner with Marion and not an adversary.
Towns such as Marion already have regulators— the EPA and DEP. It seriously complicates any negotiations Marion might have with the DEP and EPA when BBC interjects itself into the negotiations, sues it, and then attempts to impose its own regulations and deadlines on the town. This is what happened to Marion. BBC, as a non-profit, is supported by the residents of the communities on Buzzards Bay and exists to serve and support them, not to sue them. We would hope the Board of the BBC would back us on this point going forward.
John P. Waterman, Marion Selectman
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