ORLEANS — Town counsel Michael Ford, who’s been Harwich’s moderator since the 1970s, has never seen or heard of an outdoor town meeting. Nevertheless, he’s scheduled to take his customary seat with the board of selectmen on June 20 when Moderator David Lyttle will call the meeting to order on the lawn inside the running track at Nauset Regional Middle School.
At last week’s selectmen’s meeting, Lyttle and the board concurred with Town Administrator John Kelly’s proposal to set up chairs on the field and hold the meeting at 10 a.m. “I think it can be done well and appropriately with social distancing,” Lyttle told the selectmen. “A Saturday meeting would be great. If we do have foul weather, I have the ability to continue to a date certain. We may very well get lucky.”
“If we’re in the middle school gym and auditorium, we could still encounter a situation where there’s a line of people outside and there’s no room for them,” Selectman Kevin Galligan said. “I think with this outdoor situation, there’ll never be a risk of not being able to accommodate people who show up to participate.”
“I believe we’ll have a pretty good turnout,” Lyttle said. “I hope that we’ll be able to accommodate 400 to 500 chairs. If we don’t need the chairs, so be it.” Kelly said he’d plan on putting out 500 chairs.
The day after the board’s May 13 meeting, the co-presidents of Am Ha Yam Cape Cod Havurah wrote to point out that the decision would “force those of us of the Jewish religion to make a choice between our faith and our civic duty. Jews observe the Sabbath (Shabbat) from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.” Acknowledging the board’s “concern for the health and well-being of our citizens” by moving the meeting outdoors, the writers expressed their hope that “in the future you will take the Jewish calendar into consideration when planning town events.” The letter will be read during public comment at the May 20 selectmen’s meeting.
This week, Galligan said he reached out to another signatory, Am Ha Yam ritual committee chair Judy Keller, when he saw the letter. He posted the following on his Facebook page: “To my Jewish friends, please accept my sincere apologies if you are unable to make it. As one member of your hard-working select board keeping up with the many changes coming almost daily in public service, we miss the benefit of public input that we used to enjoy.”
Holding the annual town meeting before June 30 will permit approval of the operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The alternative, made possible by recent state legislation, would have allowed the town to spend one-twelfth of the current fiscal year’s budget month by month until the FY21 budget was approved.
The meeting and the subsequent annual election are pivotal stages for the town’s amended comprehensive wastewater management plan. Town meeting will be asked to approve borrowing $12,218,000 in additional funding to build the downtown sewer collection system, a treatment plant, and an effluent disposal system, and at the polls June 23 voters will be asked to OK that step as a debt exclusion from the tax levy limit. The town must execute contracts by Aug. 14 to qualify for a zero-interest loan with principal forgiveness from the State Revolving Fund.
The $12.2 million is in addition to the $47,276,200 approved for those purposes by annual town meeting in May 2019. Bids for the collection system and others for the plant and effluent system came in about $12 million higher than expected last Wednesday, prompting consternation and reflection. It appears SRF funds could also be used to pay for a percentage of the increased costs through funding in the project’s second year.
On May 13, the town’s owner’s project manager Ian Catlow, senior project manger at Tighe and Bond, opened and read five bids each for the two projects. The apparent low bidder for the sewer system contract was Robert B. Our Company of Harwich, and Daniel O’Connell’s Sons of Holyoke for the plant and effluent system. The bids were then reviewed by the board of water and sewer commissioners, who recommended that the selectmen accept the two base bids with certain options.
During the subsequent selectmen’s meeting, Tom Parece, senior program director of the town’s consulting engineering company, AECOM, said that bid due dates had been pushed back a number of times “as COVID-19 wreaked havoc in general. We were reading the tea leaves regarding pricing and impacts because of that.” Prior to the pandemic, he said, “contractors and subcontractors were fairly busy” and lacking incentive to “sharpen their pencils” for bids. Afterward, there were concerns about the impact on raw materials, manufacturing delays, and inefficiencies during construction, such as having to send two vehicles to the site to allow social distancing while traveling.
Parece said the work is well positioned to qualify for stimulus funding if the federal government approves such legislation. “A project like this is already in the queue,” he said. “It’s on the SRF list.”
Alan McClennen, vice chair of the water and sewer commissioners, submitted a letter to the selectmen as a private citizen in which he stressed the importance of “understanding the financing side of the equation — and, in particular, the impact on the Orleans taxpayers.” When town meeting approved $47 million for the project last year, sources of funds included the Cape and Islands Clean Water Trust (25 percent), principal forgiveness from the State Revolving Fund (10 percent), betterment charges to be paid by system users (19 percent), hotel-motel tax receipts (22 percent), local property tax (24 percent), and nothing from the brand-new tax on short-term rentals.
With the cost rising from $47 million to $59 million, McClennen said that the first three funding percentages will stay constant, providing an additional $6.5 million, and that the short-term rental tax receipts dedicated to the project will add $7.6 million, or 13 percent of the new total. He’s adjusted the hotel/motel tax’s percentage from 22 to 19 percent, which maintains the same dollar amount, and notes that all this will reduce the burden on the local property tax from 24 percent to 15 percent, some $2 million less.
McClennen and commissioners chair Dick Hartmann will “attend” the May 20 virtual meeting of the finance committee to discuss this analysis at 7 p.m.
With Selectman David Currier, a downtown business owner, recusing himself, the board voted 3-1 to put the $12 million figure into the town meeting warrant. Selectman Cecil Newcomb was opposed, as he was on a subsequent vote to place the question on the ballot as a debt exclusion. With that action requiring four positive votes, he agreed to change to an “aye.”
“Thank you, Cecil,” Chairman Mark Mathison said. “It doesn’t mean you’re in favor of it. You’re just putting it on the ballot so voters can weigh in.”