From the Editor

June 4, 2007

 

 

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From the Editor

 

 

From-the-Editor archives:

 

July 12, 2007: Laying a Foundation

 

June 4, 2007:  Let the Turf Wars Begin

 

May 1, 2007:  Building Lives

 

March 27, 2006: Opportunity Expo, May 1, 2006, Cape Cod Community College

March 14, 2006:  Ideas on Sustaining Cape Cod's Water and Open Space

February 23, 2005:  Sustaining a Volunteer Center

February 7, 2005: The Pulse of Progress at Cape Corps

December 2004:  Volunteering to Sustain Cape Cod

October 2004:  The World Series

May 2004:  The Cape Cod Center for Sustainability Brokers Successful Partnerships among the Cape's Nonprofits  

April 2004:  Building the Wealth of the Cape

August 2003:  A Knuckleball of an Idea

 

 

 

 

 


Let the Turf Wars Begin


Bear with me here as I'm sure you've heard these points in other contexts.

The issues that fall within the meaning of the term "sustainability" cover the lot. The "sustainability" of any region deals with economic, social, and lifestyle decisions in addition to the environmental concerns that people more strongly tend to associate with the term “sustainability.”

In this era when "green" defines a valued objective for both public sector and private business interests and when there is a building consensus about the negative consequences that result from human-induced "climate change," we're left with less time and fewer resources to devote to preexisting, longstanding quality-of-life issues like public safety, education, health care, water quality, and trash removal.

And as the number of our common concerns rises, so too does the need for resources to attend to these problems. This is actually not new. Traditionally, we've authorized our publicly elected representatives to figure out ways to divert privately held resources. They've imposed taxes.

We've also given our government representatives the power of eminent domain to take resources in addition to those collected as taxes. And in still other instances, government has at times devised creative ways to generate its own revenue by running enterprises like the lottery and other gambling businesses.

Over the years, our expanding desire for a wide range of government services has grown within the capacity of our private resources. Now, however, whenever we talk about social security, public education, health care, or public safety, we are growing increasingly aware that we seem to be headed to a day, sooner rather than later, where the level of our commitments exceeds our ability to pay.

The fiscal problem shows itself not only at the national level with large programs like social security but also at the state and local levels. It's been nearly twenty years since then State Senator Pat McGovern coined the term "budget busters" to describe budgetary problems at the state level. And it's been about the same length of time that local officials have talked about the limitations imposed by Proposition 2 1/2 to fund schools, police and fire departments, public libraries, pensions, salaries, July 4th parades, and local festivals.

We all understand the problem even if we may demonstrate differing levels of denial about whether we are really headed toward a public sector declaration of bankruptcy. Our disconnectedness to these matters at the national level arises to some extent because we rely on our representatives to think about these matters for us. And for well over two hundred years, this has actually worked well enough so that we tend to think the larger issues will be resolved through political bickering at the point when push really does come to shove.

The same has been true at the state level. "Rainy day" funds, "temporary" tax increases, the imposition of new "fees," and the closing of old "loopholes" are the "coins" that the legislature has used to bring our fiscal affairs back in order.

Locally, "overrides" and "fees," along with a curtailment in some local services, have been the means used to keep matters solvent. We've relied on our town administrators, selectmen, finance committee members, and other local officials, and they've generally served us well to this point.

Now, if we are to "sustain" ourselves, we need to start a more open and forthright discussion about whether there actually are better ways to provide the services we desire. On Cape Cod, we have fifteen towns. They all have a police department, and several have more than one fire department. They have water departments, departments of public works, building departments, conservation offices, and so on.

These similar sets of services evolved from the earliest days of our commonwealth, when the means of travel was significantly slower. So, too, was the speed of communication. A day's travel for work purposes or for attending to personal matters in the eighteenth century might have taken some ten or fifteen miles round trip. Perhaps even across the boundary of a town. Today, in the same time frame, it's conceivable to go off the Cape into Boston and back for the same purposes.

This is a good thing in most instances. Travel and communication efficiencies allow us to operate a regional hospital, a regional community college, and a long list of other Cape-wide businesses and nonprofit services. We enjoy regional shopping centers and entertainment outlets. We visit beaches and explore small communities of enormously appealing historic charm and culture.

And over the years, we've linked ourselves at times to obtain cost efficiencies and to provide more responsive community services. The emergency 911 communications system is one example. Our regional trash removal system is a second. Our controversial effort to establish a regional planning agency is a third. And there are many more, including the two regional technical high schools and the regionally shared library services. The region's hospital system is the best example of the fact that we provide better health care services in the aggregate at a few central physical locations than we could provide if each town on its own undertook the effort to respond to our collective demand and need of health-related services.

All of which is simply to suggest that the financial strains that threaten our ability to provide public sector services are ones that will find their remedies in our willingness to recast how we provide local services and also in our willingness to let go of some of the traditional ways we have provided these services. There is a point where what might perhaps be considered historic "charm" is too heavy for us to carry forward. We're at the point where we need to consider what trade-offs we might wish to make.

The most recent example of this overall dilemma is evident in the proposal Governor Patrick has set forth to open up the community college system at no cost to any in-state resident who graduates from high school. The cost estimates are gargantuan when considered in the existing context of the community college system's current services and the costs for the staff, professors, and administrators that provide these services.

Perhaps the merit of the idea is more conceivable if it is combined with the costs to provide our current k-12 system.  And while this might more accurately lead to an assessment of the true market costs and forces necessary to provide a full range of public educational services, the political calculation would be far more complicated to evaluate. The anxiety factor alone would be nearly incomprehensible.

Here on the Cape, for example, what would be the cost savings if we were to combine more of our local school systems? What would happen if we freed up the real estate that these systems control to be used for other public purposes such as housing or simply open space?

My point in raising these questions is not to suggest that I have any sense of what the fiscal remedies might be. But the question whether we may enhance our ability to provide desired public services by reconsidering how we currently provide them is neither a partisan nor a parochial question. We'll do a better job of sustaining ourselves to the extent that we have open discussions that share accurate information both about what is possible as well as what we are willing to accept as its cost.

 


Allen Larson, President
Cape Cod Center for Sustainability

 

 

 

 


 

Chatham