is encouraged. (Each section has its own index.)
July 12, 2007: Laying a
June 4, 2007: Let the Turf Wars Begin
May 1, 2007: Building
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
23, 2005: Sustaining a
7, 2005: The Pulse of Progress at Cape Corps
2004: Volunteering to Sustain Cape Cod
2004: The World Series
2004: The Cape Cod Center for Sustainability Brokers Successful
Partnerships among the Cape's Nonprofits
2004: Building the Wealth of the Cape
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
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
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
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
Allen Larson, President
Cape Cod Center for Sustainability