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Impasse broken in Barnstable County deadlock over federal stimulus money

John Phelan bit.ly/2rd445K

An agreement in Barnstable County government is within reach after months of debate on how to spend more than $40 million in federal stimulus money.

The Assembly of Delegates decided Wednesday to reach a compromise with the three Barnstable County Commissioners, which effectively frees up $10 million dollars available to the Cape's 15 towns. Another $10 million will be available for region-wide projects.

The Assembly was voting on a motion to override the county commissioners on Wednesday.

Instead of setting aside $10 million for the 15 Cape towns as proposed by commissioners, the motion in front of the Assembly was to send $20 million dollars directly to the towns. The idea was to distribute the money based on population size, with more money going to the larger communities.

It represented all of the money received by the county so far from the federal government, half of the $41 million in total coming.

Barnstable County Assembly of Delegate members considering how to distribute federal stimulus money.
Barnstable County Assembly of Delegate members considering how to distribute federal stimulus money.

The vote was far from unanimous. Thirty-five percent of the vote wanted to send the $20 million to the towns as soon as possible. The Upper Cape communities — Mashpee, Falmouth and Sandwich — all voted to send $20 million to the towns (Bourne delegate George Slade was not present for the vote).

Mashpee delegate Tom O'Hara argued that the biggest regional problem on the Cape in need of funding was sewer work, in order to mitigate nitrogen pollution in the Cape's coastal waterbodies. And he said that towns are expecting the stimulus funding for shovel-ready projects.

"We need these dollars now, so we can get going," O'Hara said. O'Hara is also a select board member in Mashpee.

The Chatham and Orleans delegates also supported sending more money to the towns.

But other delegates saw the value of using money for more regional projects.

The Assembly had heard from the state senate delegation earlier in the meeting. Both senators Susan Moran of Falmouth and Julian Cyr of Truro had argued for funding to help regional projects, such as zero-percent loans for homeowners hooking up to new sewers, affordable housing, childcare services, and other clean-water efforts.

Cyr told assembly members that municipalities have escaped the pandemic largely without financial hardship, so this funding should go toward regional issues.

"These dollars represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move forward on the big problems that the Cape faces," Cyr said. "The climate crisis; a 4 billion dollar wastewater problem; the desperate housing crisis that has been growing for 20 years, but is now — as a result of the pandemic — on steroids."

Several Assembly members said they had changed their mind that morning after the two senators gave the same presentation in front of the County Commissioners.

Despite voting to compromise with the Commissioners, some expressed disappointment in how the process has moved forward.

Provincetown delegate Brian O'Malley said that the commissioners had taken an "arrogant" approach to distributing the stimulus funding. He said they had tried to push forward with a plan without any buy-in from the Assembly.

"I'm afraid that I was allowing myself to have an emotional reaction, and that I wouldn't be pushed around like that," O'Malley said.

But the presentation from the state senators made him come around. For one, towns have made it through the pandemic relatively unscathed, at least better than originally feared. There's also been new revenue sources recently added to town coffers, including funds generated through the short-term rental tax, as well as local taxes on marijuana sales.

Also, the senators told the Assembly that stimulus money from the federal government could be doubled, if not tripled, with state grants for the development of affordable housing.

"The last thing I want to see for us is something like what is going on in Washington, where effectively nothing can get done," O'Malley said.

Reached after the meeting, the chair of the County Commissioners, Sheila Lyons, said that she was appreciative of the state senator's guidance and support in helping the county government reach a compromise.

She said that towns can now apply for the stimulus funding. Municipal officials were trained by county staff last week on how to access an online portal that the county is using to distribute funding.

Meanwhile, the commissioners last week formed an advisory committee that will review grant requests. An initial round of funding could be announced by early summer.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.