Selectmen Hear Protest Over Lodging Tax Increase

By: William F. Galvin

Harwich town seal.

HARWICH – Voters will be facing a 14-article special town meeting on Oct. 18 that seeks to raise taxes on short-term rentals and fund a number of wastewater initiatives, including changes to the town’s comprehensive wastewater management plan.

Selectmen heard protests Sept. 7 over the proposed increase from 4 to 6 percent of the local tax on hotel, motel and short-term rentals. Selectmen want to direct a portion of the tax to wastewater and housing stabilization funds.

Chamber of commerce member Tony Guthrie expressed disappointment in the rationale he heard from the board for the proposed increase in the lodging tax. He referred to comments made by the board about other towns on the Cape having already raised the tax, so Harwich should follow suit.

The arrogance of this board is breathtaking,” Guthrie said of board suggestions that out-of-town people should “pay for their flushing.”

You don’t give the chamber of commerce anywhere near what they need,” Guthrie said, adding that the chamber should be getting a portion of the new funds selectmen are planning to direct to wastewater and housing projects.

You are not smart enough to go to the chamber and say we’re going to give you a part of this because we are shouldering again the lodging industry with a burden that doesn’t really affect them, and we’re going to punish them with more taxes,” Guthrie said. “I’ll do everything I can to get people to vote against this because I think you are ill-managing this town on this specific issue.”

Guthrie said he has been a business person in Harwich for 25 years and worked at the Wequassett Inn for 12 years. Harwich has two places that charge the most for weddings and rooms in New England: The Wequassett Inn, which charges $1,000 a night in the summer, and the Wychmere Beach Club, he said. Both have wastewater treatment facilities, which he said have zero impact on the watershed. Sandy McLardy challenged the zero contribution statement.

Bed and Breakfast owner Sharon Foster supported Guthrie’s position. She questioned whether the town was examining its budget with a fine-tooth comb. She urged selectmen to tighten their belt and to be sure every cent is spent wisely. 

If you plan to specifically target one segment of society, you need to make sure they are getting a benefit from some of the money you are taking in,” Foster said in support of providing the chamber with more funds.

Selectmen supported the article seeking a 2 percent increase in the lodging tax, but not before Selectman Donald Howell pushed to ensure the lodging tax funds would be directed to a wastewater special purpose stabilization fund and a housing special purpose stabilization fund. There are two articles in the warrant seeking to create those funds, and selectmen agreed that 25 percent of the lodging tax generated would go into each fund.

Special town meeting voters will also be asked to appropriate $250,000 for engineering services to update the comprehensive wastewater management plan.

Another article seeks $2.1 million for engineering services for additional sewers in the East Harwich area, including permitting and design. The system would collect additional wastewater to satisfy the town's daily capacity agreement for treatment at the Chatham wastewater plant, while also addressing nitrogen attenuation for the Round Cove and Pleasant Bay Watershed.

Russ Kleekamp, a consulting engineer with GHD, Inc., said the project would put the town in the best position to access federal infrastructure funding. The town should be ready with the shovel in the ground when those funds become available, he said.

Another article seeks $400,000 for engineering services for approximately 5,500 linear feet of gravity sewer mains on Continental Drive and Whidah Drive, including permitting and design.

The board also voted to include an article seeking $200,000 for engineer services for sewers along Route 28 in West Harwich. Dry pipes would be installed when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is reconstructing the road. Once the MassDOT work is completed a five-year moratorium on road work would be in place, preventing a sewer main from being installed during that timeframe.

Another article seeks $25,000 for an eminent domain taking of two acres of land off Pleasant Lake Avenue. The parcel has an unclear title and is surrounded by the 13.2 acres the affordable housing trust has purchased from the estate of James G. Marceline. The plan is to combine the land with the trust’s parcel for development of affordable housing.

Other articles seek $378,676 to purchase and equip a new ambulance; fund non-union wage increases at $39,843; fund a negotiated contract increase with the firefighters union for $86,957; fund a negotiated contract with the water department union for $38,345; transfer  surplus bond proceeds from  the quint fire truck purchase in the amount of $219,894; and pay unpaid bills for $8,085.

Selectmen voted 4-0 to support all of the articles, except the Continental Drive and Whidah Drive sewering, which the board supported 3-1.